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Plenty of light! Federal government shedding lighthouses; buyers transform them

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YORK, Maine — Lighthouses for sale! Actually, lots of lighthouses for free.

Technological advances and a desire to purge unneeded properties have paved the way for the federal government to get rid of more than 100 lighthouses over the last 14 years, and it intends to keep selling and giving them away. The sold lighthouses, located on both coasts and in the Great Lakes states, have become everything from museums to bed-and-breakfasts.

Dave Waller, who purchased the Graves Island Light Station in the mouth of Boston Harbor for a record $933,888 last year, is retrofitting the turn-of-the-century lighthouse into a private home that can double as a vacation rental. He's trying to fashion a bedroom as far as possible from the foghorn — a challenging feat in a building with about 750 feet of livable space.

"It just seemed like a chance to have something a little more independent and on your own," Waller said.

Sixty-eight of the lighthouses have gone for free to preservationists while 36 others sold at public auction thanks to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which allows the government to dispose of federally-owned lighthouses. The act turns 14 next month. The Coast Guard, which maintains lighthouses, has 71 other lighthouses queued up to go through the transfer process, and four are at auction now.

The Coast Guard owns 254 light houses, officials said. The question is more about which ones it will keep than which ones it will eventually sell, said Jeff Gales, executive director of the non-profit U.S. Lighthouse Society.

PHOTO: This undated photo released by the federal General Services Administration shows the Halfway Rock Light Station on a small island in Casco Bay off Harpswell, Maine. The administration is the nearing the end of an online auction for the 76-foot-high lighthouse, with a half dozen bidders and a high bid of more than $200,000. (AP Photo/General Services Administration, Jeremy D'Entremont)
This undated photo released by the federal General Services Administration shows the Halfway Rock Light Station on a small island in Casco Bay off Harpswell, Maine. The administration is the nearing the end of an online auction for the 76-foot-high lighthouse, with a half dozen bidders and a high bid of more than $200,000. (AP Photo/General Services Administration, Jeremy D'Entremont)

"There is an end in sight," Gales said. "There's a limited number of lighthouses."

The federal General Services Administration, which sells the lighthouses, does not have a target number of how many lighthouses it would like to sell and give away, but the Coast Guard is always looking to shed excess lighthouses that "are often no longer critical" to the guard's work, said Patrick Sclafani, a spokesman for the agency. Buyers and preservationists typically allow the Coast Guard access to the lighthouses so it can maintain the lights, all of which are automated.

The administration is the nearing the end of an online auction for the Halfway Rock Light Station off of Harpswell, Maine. The lighthouse is attracting interest, with a half dozen bidders and a high bid of more than $240,000. That's a good figure for a lighthouse that is only accessible by boat, a feature that frequently drives bidders away, Gales said.

Some of the lighthouses — typically those that are easily accessed on land — are transferred swiftly to historic preservation groups, while others that are off-shore or in need of heavy maintenance languish on the auction block with no interested bidders. Still others attract the eye of private investors, such as Boston's Waller.

Officials say the GSA's Boston office has been responsible for about 80 percent of lighthouse conveyances and those transfers have netted $3.35 million for the Coast Guard.

That office closed out an auction of New England's tallest lighthouse, the Boon Island Light Station off of York, Maine, in August with a top bid of $78,000 out of 12 bidders. Winning bidder Art Girard of Portland, Maine, will inherit the 133-foot lighthouse and a challenge: it is located on an isolated, rocky island six miles off the Maine coast, barely salient from Cape Neddick in York.

The government also is currently auctioning lighthouses in Massachusetts, Michigan and Wisconsin.

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