Digest>Archives> September 2003

Currituck deed transfer up in the air — again

Dirty politics continues in battle over lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison


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Currituck Lighthouse in 1975.
Photo by: Richard Clayton

On July 30th, word spread like wildfire across the nation as the lighthouse community heard that the long fought battle over the ownership of North Carolina’s Currituck Lighthouse was finally over as Craig Manson, Department of Interior Assistant Secretary of Fish and Wildlife and Parks said, “Today I have determined that the Outer Banks Conservationists, Inc. of Manteo, North Carolina, should have ownership of the historic Currituck Beach Lighthouse. My decision was made in accordance with the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation of 2000 (NHLPA).”

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The Currituck Lighthouse today.
Photo by: Betty Collins

Although the lighthouse had been awarded to the Outer Banks Conservationists, the group that had spent years and millions to restore, maintain and open the tower to the public, as a result of their application under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act the local county government filed an appeal with the Department of the Interior claiming that the county should be the rightful owner, an appeal that dragged out longer than the law allowed.

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View from inside one of the buildings at ...
Photo by: Lynne S. White

During the process, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones introduced a bill buried deep inside other legislation that would have circumvented the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA) and would have transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the county government without any type of due process or covenants. What was even more amazing is that Congressman Jones was a cosponsor of the NHLPA, a law that he helped to pass which he was now trying to circumvent. When that method failed, he helped the county with their appeal and then put political pressure on the Department of the Interior to side with the county government. That pressure went directly to Craig Manson, the man whose job it was to rule on the appeal. This was dirty politics at its worst.

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The Currituck Lighthouse, year unknown. Photo ...

While all this was going on the White House Council on Environmental Quality was drawn into the controversy when they stated they were going to review or mediate the situation at the request of someone or some other government agency, but just who had made that request they weren’t sure of. Wow, talk about dirty politics! However, apparently realizing they were getting themselves in the middle of the frying pan, they quickly jumped out.

Manson also said in his released statement, “Under NHLPA, the preservation of the lighthouse comes first. The standard to be applied is the best “stewardship” standard; that is, on the record, which applicant appears best able to provide for the preservation of the lighthouse. No other consideration is relevant. That was the basis for today’s decision.”

But no sooner was everyone ready to celebrate this great victory for lighthouse preservation, than the county government announced that if the government gives the deed of ownership to OBC, the county will find OBC in violation of zoning ordinances and disallow lighthouse visitor use of the nearby county owned restrooms, which by the way most of which was not paid for by the county, but by OBC to the tune of $20,000. Wow, talk about childish. Statements like that make one wonder what happens to people after they get elected to public office.

Oh, did I mention that in the meantime, Congressman Jones tried to get the Inspector General’s office involved, fearing that vital records of this controversy be impounded to prove possible wrongdoing later on?

In the meantime, Congressman Jones, apparently not wanting to dirty his hands anymore, asked a colleague, Representative Richard Pombo, (R-Calif) to contact Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to ask for an investigation to see if OBC had violated its lease with the Coast Guard. Congressman Pombo charged that although OBC had an agreement with the Coast Guard to allow them to charge separate entry fees for touring the compound and for entering that lighthouse at one location rather than separating the money, that it had come to his attention that some money that was collected for state owned and OBC leased compound was spent on other projects. The congressman claims all of that money should have gone to maintain the lighthouse. However, the State of North Carolina, which owns the compound surrounding the lighthouse has never had any disagreement with OBC about how the portion of the money collected was spent, considering that OBC used that money to restore the keeper’s quarters that were once in danger of being lost forever. Stop for a moment, can you believe what you are reading? Can this actually be happening in America?

Read on, it doesn’t stop here . . . . .

As soon as Congressman Jones found out that Craig Manson had released his ruling on the ownership of the lighthouse, he contacted GSA and asked them to hold up the transfer of the deed until the Coast Guard could provide a report on their investigation. In a story in the Outer Banks Sentinel on August 3rd, the paper reported that Congressman Jones charged Secretary of Interior Gale Norton as being “reckless” in releasing Manson’s determination before the Coast Guard has completed its investigation.” Again, I ask you, can you believe this really going on in America?

In all these years, during all this time, during the entire application process, the appeal process and even now, there was never any question of how OBC has handled the funds at the lighthouse, yet Congressman Jones has to go to a colleague from California to put political pressure on the United States Coast Guard to conduct an investigation after the ownership process for the Currituck Lighthouse has been approved under NHLPA (a federal law), appealed and approved again.

Enough is enough!

The United States Coast Guard needs to spend its time and resources on other matters such as law enforcement, environmental concerns, search and rescue and Homeland Security, not investigating, after the fact, how the OBC has taken care of Currituck Lighthouse. For a United States Congressman to request such an investigation now at this late stage of the game is reckless conduct unbecoming a member of Congress that simply proves this Congressman and his fellow Congressman from California have no idea what their real priorities should be in these turbulent times.

Congressman Jones, who has more than once tried to circumvent the law, should be asked by his constituents to resign. If he will not, he should be investigated by the House Ethics Committee on how he has handled himself during this entire Currituck Lighthouse controversy.

The County officials who have also wasted local taxpayer money fighting the OBC and are now threatening zoning problems against OBC should be ashamed of themselves. They should work with the volunteers who saved this historic property for the good of the entire local community. These county officials should get up at their next meeting and in front of the whole world apologize for how their childish behavior has wasted time, energy and money, and bury the hatchet and get on with the business of managing the county, not fighting with the dedicated preservationists who have saved, restored, maintained and opened to the public one of the great treasures of our nation’s maritime history.

This story appeared in the September 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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