Who’s the keeper of Warwick Light? Right now, nobody.
The home on the property of the lighthouse at the tip of Warwick Neck has been vacant since June, and now the Coast Guard is pondering whether or not someone will be interested in occupying the home until next spring. In the meantime, discussions of transferring ownership of the light to a non-profit, municipal or state organization are not off the table according to George Bockstael, real property team leader for the Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit in Warwick.
Each year the Coast Guard evaluates all of its lighthouses and determines which, if any, will be divested.
“The list changes every year,” he said. “Have we considered Warwick Light? Absolutely.”
In the near future, Bockstael said he knows of no specific plan to transfer ownership of Warwick Light, though they have considered divesting the light even when the home on the property is occupied.
The present Warwick Light structure was built in 1932 and is owned and maintained by the United States Coast Guard. The house on the property is under the control of the Coast Guard Housing Office and is available to Coast Guard officers and their families for rental.
Bockstael said most officers get reassigned and relocate in the spring or summer, and they don’t foresee anyone looking to rent the vacant house until that time next year at the earliest – most rotation of personnel happens every three years or so.
Those who choose to rent the home would forfeit their Coast Guard housing allowance, which would otherwise be used toward a mortgage or rent. The occupants of the house are also required to maintain the grounds and make them available for public visitation.
The Coast Guard officer that had previously occupied the home at Warwick Light retired earlier this year, leaving the property vacant. Without a caretaker, the Coast Guard calls upon the Southeastern New England Sector of the U.S. Coast Guard, located in Woods Hole, Mass., for maintenance duties. Bockstael said someone from the Woods Hole location would come to Warwick Light about once a week to perform whatever maintenance was needed.
But if the Coast Guard feels Warwick Light is excess, whether because of financial strain or technological advances in navigation, they can transfer ownership of the property to another entity.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘sell,’” said Bockstael of the process, since the lighthouse would essentially be given to the chosen party.
This transferal of ownership is made possible through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA), with the oversight of the National Park Service (NPS) and the General Services Administration (GSA), ensures that the Coast Guard can divest lighthouses to individuals or groups with the desire and means to preserve these historic landmarks.
Bockstael said the NHLPA is recognition of the fact that the Coast Guard owns and maintains a lot of lighthouses, which is no small expense. It also highlights that historic lighthouses deserve to be appropriately maintained.
Bockstael said the yearly maintenance cost for a lighthouse varies based upon location and exposure to various elements, but said on average it ranges from $20,000 to $40,000. But unexpected capital costs are what can drive costs far beyond those average yearly estimates.
Bockstael said Warwick Light is still very much an active navigational aid.
“We don’t expect that to go away,” he said. Brockstael also noted that Warwick Light has a sound element as well, which is still in use.
But Bockstael said that high-tech means are being used more often to serve the purpose that light signals did in the past, making navigation possible without Warwick’s light tower.
“Do we really need to have the light tower? Probably not,” he said. But is it important to the community and the history of the city? “Absolutely.”
In addition to its practicality, determining if the Light is excess also falls on the likelihood of occupancy. Warwick Light is about seven minutes from the Coast Guard Civil Engineering Office, therefore, Bockstael said it is more easily rented to a Coast Guard employee.
Bockstael said the house’s occupation also depends on the economy. With the housing market as it is today, Bockstael said rents are higher, and therefore those who relocate to the area may be more apt to take advantage of the Warwick Light home. Back in 2007, said Bockstael, the Coast Guard may have viewed the property, should it have been vacant, as excess.
“Today we would be looking at it going, ‘We wish we still had that,’” he said.
Should the Coast Guard determine Warwick Light is excess, they would report that they no longer need the lighthouse to the GSA, which Bockstael calls “the Federal Government’s Realtor.”
The GSA, along with the National Park Service, would then take the property under the NHLPA and make an announcement in Warwick that the property is available. Bockstael said it would likely be the state, city of preservation society that would step forward to acquire the property. The interested group would have to submit a proposal including their experience at maintaining a historic landmark, as well as a business plan. From there, the NPS would choose the best-qualified party, and the lighthouse and accompanying home would be offered at no cost to the keeper. However, the deed would have reversionary clauses that would revert ownership back to the GSA should the new owner not abide by the maintenance agreements. In other words, said Bockstael, if the group that acquires the lighthouse decides they can “make more money by turning it into a McDonald’s,” they lose their ownership rights.
Conimicut Light was acquired by the City of Warwick through the NHLPA in 2004, and now the lighthouse’s structure is maintained by the city, while the Coast Guard maintains the light and fog signal. Should ownership of Warwick Light be transferred, the same practices would be instituted.
Although nothing is set in stone for Warwick Light’s future, Bockstael did offer words to the wise should the lighthouse and home become available. Though it may sound like a fantastic opportunity to own a lighthouse for zero money upfront, Bockstael said becoming a keeper is a huge responsibility.
“If the Coast Guard, a branch of the federal government, finds it difficult to pay for the maintenance of a lighthouse, I would be really careful as a private person to want to step forward and say, ‘We’ll maintain this,’" he said. Instead, the most successful keepers are groups that devote their time, energy, and funds to a community service that Bockstael said often “goes too unrecognized.”