2007-02-15 / Front Page

Lead paint spurs new debate over lighthouse keeper's home

By Dotti Farrington

Lead paint contamination inside the Beavertail Lighthouse keeper's quarters and around the perimeter of the tower have led to a renewed controversy over control of the facility, and its use for affordable housing, according to talks at Monday's Town Council meeting.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser was assigned to bring more information to the Feb. 26 council session. The councilors also said they would like a representative of the U.S. Coast Guard, which owns the seven-acre historic site, to meet with them.

Town Solicitor J. William W. Harsch cautioned town officials that the recent notice about exterior lead contamination and added documentation about interior lead paint "puts the town on notice for the first time" about the existence of the pollution and about the potential liability for its removal.

Harsch also raised concerns about the responsibilities of ownership superceding any disclaimers that might be included within a transfer deed.

In a written memo, Associate Solicitor A. Lauriston Parks said that the lease renewal between the town and Coast Guard "appears to be satisfactory." He added, "I have the distinct impression that we will be allowed to use the quarters (for affordable housing) if the lead paint problem has been abated."

Keiser told the council that the Coast Guard has indicated that it would accept responsibility for the removal of soil contaminated by the long-term leaching out of lead from the paint used at the facility. The town already had assumed responsibility for removal of any interior contamination so that it could use the building for affordable housing, Keiser said.

Councilman Michael Schnack spoke in favor of immediately signing the lease with the Coast Guard, but Council Vice President Julio DiGiando and Councilor Barbara Szepatowski urged caution.

Keiser had called for the lease signing, based on his and Park's review. However, after the council discussion, Keiser agreed to give the terms and impacts "further scrutiny."

Monday's talks also included a report that the town's long-term lease with the Coast Guard lapsed in 2004, and that the town and the Coast Guard have been negotiating for an updated lease. The lease is intended to be in effect until September. By that time, the Coast Guard expects to divest itself of the lighthouse, as one of about 300 lighthouses declared as surplus and being made available for public or private use. Keiser said he is planning a separate council workshop on that aspect of long-term operation of the property.

Long-range plans

The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association launched a plan a few years ago to gain management authority of the facility so that it could expand its museum.

That goal is newly recognized by the Coast Guard within the proposed lease under study.

The plan calls for the association's role in partnership with the state, which owns the state park surrounding the lighthouse, and with the town, if the town agrees, as planned, to assume ownership when the Coast Guard makes the property available.

The town has been preparing to follow through on the partnership, but Monday's discussion reflected some new concern about liabilities for the contamination.

Renewed protests

The talks also included a renewal of concerns expressed by Frank Meyer, a member of the Beavertail Advisory Committee. Meyer repeated that the committee has priority authority over use of the property. However, he noted, the committee decisions are generally ignored by the town, particularly in the matter of affordable housing. The advisory committee and the museum association believe that renting the property is not compatible with preservation of the lighthouse and the museum operation, which they see as the highest use of the property.

Meyer further maintained that a 1980 memo of understanding already commits the state to takeover the Coast Guard property and the memo pledges that the lighthouse association will have management authority. He said the memo does not provide for affordable housing there; and that a recent ruling from the national Coast Guard offices says that affordable housing is not consistent with the lease agreement.

Among those affected by the dispute is Richard Shutt, current caretaker, with whom the town mediated a court-sanctioned eviction effective March 31. The town wanted to rotate the tenancy of the quarters, and a year ago chose Michael Turillo, his wife and their four children, to move into the keeper's house. However, Shutt's claim for continued residency has delayed the turnover. Keiser stressed that no move-in would be allowed until the lead paint problem is abated.

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