Digest>Archives> July 2006

Battle over Lightship in Oyster Bay

By Bill Bleyer


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When the fledgling National Lighthouse Museum towed the 1936 Nantucket Lightship to an Oyster Bay pier in 2003, the museum said the floating lighthouse would remain for about six months so that local volunteers could restore it.

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But the bright red 150-foot ship is still there with no plans to leave anytime soon. And it has worn out its welcome, at least in some quarters.

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The Town of Oyster Bay and the state Department of Environmental Conservation jointly own the waterfront property where the Nantucket has taken root. In November, they sent the Staten Island museum an eviction notice. They claimed the ship is trespassing, damaging the dock and preventing other vessels from visiting the Waterfront Center.

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The museum’s lawyer responded, arguing the ship is an educational tool and should be allowed to stay while restoration work continues and its exhibit buildings and pier on Staten Island open, possibly next year.

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Since then, the stalemate continues with both sides accusing each other of refusing to respond to calls and requests for meetings.

“They’re like the ‘The Man who Came to Dinner’ and never left,” said state Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), who helped acquire the waterfront property.

Jerry Roberts, the museum’s executive director, said “We weren’t trespassing because nobody previously told us to leave. Right now we don’t have another place to put it. If we were forced to move it, we would go bankrupt, and I don’t want to do that.”

While Marcellino and DEC Regional Director Peter Scully complain that the museum doesn’t return calls to clarify its plans for the ship, Roberts said he has placed numerous unreturned calls made to town and state officials. “We still never got any written response to our written response to the eviction notice,” he added, or another letter sent a month ago explaining the situation and saying he was eager to talk to anyone or meet with anyone about the issue.

In the end, the impasse might still be resolved without the Nantucket becoming homeless because Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto has become fond of the ship and thinks it adds a nice maritime history touch to the waterfront.

“We always come down on the side of historic preservation,” he said. “And this story will have a happy ending too. We’re not going to let anything bad happen here. If it’s time that’s needed, then we will certainly do what we can to provide a reasonable amount of time. We will work with everybody. I really haven’t heard anything negative from the community on it and I’ve heard from people who enjoy the view of it. But we can’t let the situation go on forever.”

The eviction notice ordered the museum to remove the vessel immediately from the pier at the Waterfront Center. The “continued presence of the said vessel on public property without benefit of written authorization and/or required approvals...is hereby deemed an illegal trespass...,” it said. The letter said that if the museum did not remove the vessel before Feb. 1, the state agency and town “will pursue any and all available legal recourse, including the removal and relocation of the vessel and the assessment of any resulting costs”

to the museum.

An attorney for the museum, John Luisi, wrote back to the DEC in January that “the Nantucket was towed to the Jakobson pier in Oyster Bay after a board member talked to a representative of the DEC, who indicated that the ship was welcome and could stay while undergoing necessary repairs. The Board ran out of money, and is aggressively seeking funding to complete repairs and extensive restoration.”

Marcellino said “They needed some repair work done and needed some extra time. So we said ‘Fine. How much time do you need?’ They said ‘a couple of months’ and that’s fine. But that was three years ago. They’ve never left. They keep talking about this imaginary pier in Staten Island. They’re taking up space. They’re a hazard to the pier. If you stand on the pier next to the boat, you feel the boat like its pulling the pier when it rocks. It’s an old pier. My fear is that a good wind will take that big heavy boat and take part of the pier with it. If someone goes on that boat and gets hurt, who is liable? The state and the town are liable. There’s no offer of insurance to cover everybody. There’s no offer to pay rent. They’ve not been good neighbors. I just want to know: what are their intentions?”

Marcellino added that “They’ve got to sit down with the state and the town. They’re not being responsive to anybody. If they would respond, maybe something could be worked out.” Scully concurred.

Told of their comments, Roberts said he would try to call them directly to seek a meeting.

“We assumed we would be out of there a long time ago,” Roberts said. But New York City officials’ plans for developing the museum site next to the ferry terminal were delayed by the 9/11 attack.

“The whole situation in Staten Island dragged on and on,” Roberts said, “but things are looking pretty decent right now. The city is selling some of our property on the condition that that money goes directly to support the museum. But it will be many, many months before any kind of a deal is signed and any funds are released. It will be a while before we will be allowed to bring the ship to that pier on Staten Island. We can’t give anybody a date.”

But he said it could take nine months before the museum could begin operations on Staten Island, opening its first exhibit building, and probably at least a year before it could provide a home for the lightship. The smaller of the two museum buildings has been almost totally restored except for a finished floor. The larger building has been restored on the exterior but the interior is still empty. That will require about $4

million to refurbish. Three of the five historic buildings at the site are being sold for redevelopment with the façades maintained with their historic appearance. Developers will have to provide capital funds for development of the museum site. The smaller building would be open for about two years with some exhibits while the full museum was being established in the larger building. Then the smaller building would become a gift shop and cafe.

Roberts expects to have about $150,000 from the sale of the property for restoration work on the ship. His plan is to move the ship to a dry dock on Staten Island for a total repainting and other major repairs and then move it to the museum site.

In the meantime, he said the Oyster Bay volunteers could do some painting as the weather improves and offer weekend tours “so that the ship becomes a meaningful asset to the harbor.” Roberts said he’s looking for more volunteers and a company willing to donate paint. Anyone interested can reach Roberts at info@lighthousemuseum.org.

Eventually, Roberts would like to have a sea camp program for children as well as corporate retreats aboard the Nantucket.

And once the ship leaves, Roberts said he would like to bring it back periodically for tours and programs.

Venditto said “There is some concern about the pier. If a storm strikes, there could be some damage to the pier and it might upset

the environment.”

Roberts offered to meet with town officials at the dock to determine if the Nantucket was damaging the pier and come up with a solution if it was. “I don’t believe there’s any severe structural damage,” he said. “My guess is from the ship going up and down with the tide it may be rubbing against some of the pilings.” He said the museum would be happy to put more tires or rubber fenders between the ship and the pier, if necessary.

Fritz Coudert, president of the nonprofit Waterfront Center, has no problem with the Nantucket remaining where it is.

“Right now it’s sitting at a section of the pier where it does no harm to anyone and that’s not going to be used for anything else for the foreseeable future,” he said. “This is an organization that right now is down on its knees financially trying desperately to work with the City of New York. There’s no reason why they should leave.”

He said if the ship is painted and opened to the public periodically it would be an asset to the hamlet and the harbor. “We should retain some kind of relationship with the lighthouse museum and the Nantucket” in the future, Coudert said.

While state officials have said that the ship might be causing damage to the harbor, Kyle Rabin, executive director of Friends of the Bay, an Oyster Bay environmental group,

said “it’s not something we’ve been too concerned about.”

The museum brought the lightship to Oyster Bay because of the presence of volunteers who worked on the restoration of the historic oyster sloop Christeen in 1998-1999 and were looking for a new project.

The lightship was built after its predecessor was rammed and sunk by the RMS Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, marking the shoals off Nantucket, Mass. The British paid for the replacement, the world’s largest lightship. During World War II, the vessel was painted gray and outfitted with guns before being assigned to guard the harbor at Portland, Maine. Retired in 1975, the ship was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. It was docked at the Intrepid Sea-Air- Space Museum in Manhattan before being acquired by the HMS Rose Foundation in Bridgeport, Conn., which sold it to the lighthouse museum in 2002 for $1.

This story appeared in the July 2006 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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