Southport residents say lighthouse preservation lost out to luxury

Posted July 08, 2014, at 12:39 p.m.
Last modified July 09, 2014, at 4:53 p.m.

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SOUTHPORT, Maine — A new luxury inn scheduled to open Sunday in a restored historic lighthouse off Southport Island has drawn the ire of some local residents, who say the project veered dramatically off-course from its original plan.

But historic preservationists say that although the nonprofit Cuckolds Fog Signal and Lights Station Council floundered several times by moving forward with construction without proper approval — necessitating that they redo the work — The Inn at Cuckolds Lighthouse is “historically compatible” — if not “historically accurate” — and the project will be approved by the National Park Service.

Meanwhile, members of the council bristle at any portrayal of the controversy as pitting locals against those “from away,” and instead dismiss the opponents as “a few rancorous cranks or noisy neighbors.”

A third of a mile off the tip of Southport Island, at the entrance of Boothbay Harbor, a fog signal station was established in 1892 on The Cuckolds, two rocky ledges rising about 15 feet above high water. Attached to the signal, a two-story, wooden keeper’s dwelling was bolted to the ledge.

The light was automated in 1977 and the keeper’s dwelling dismantled. Soon, the property fell into disrepair.

In 2006, after a two-year application process in which the council outlined its plans for the property, the federal government transferred to the nonprofit group the deed for the former light station at no cost through the National Historic Lighthouse Act of 2000.

Some Southport residents now say the project’s original mission — historic preservation, interpretive education, youth development and recreation — has been entirely lost.

“Initially it was going to be identical to what was there before, but it has varied from that so it is not really historic,” Marcus Knowlton, who can see The Cuckolds from his century-old summer home, said recently. “They changed quite a few things around, apparently some of it to make nicer rooms.”

Knowlton’s wife, Meredith, told the Boothbay Register, “What was originally a great project to restore the lighthouse we all adored morphed into a B&B for hedge-fund types.”

“Ten years ago this was a community project with all volunteers,” Southport Board of Selectmen chairman Gerry Gamage told the Boothbay Register in 2012, when he resigned from the Cuckolds council. “But that’s veered off. It’s not about the community anymore. It’s not a volunteer effort anymore, and that’s the sad part.”

But Janet Reingold, who was among those to draft the original application for the restoration project, said the council adhered to its original mission, including creating a self-sustaining inn. The council will offer educational and recreational programs, and has already sponsored an exhibit at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland and hosted a program at Maine Maritime Museum, she said.

Reingold insisted that schism is not about “locals versus people from away,” and argued that — including local contractors, engineers and builders — more “locals” are involved in the restoration than people “from away.”

Much of the naysaying is directed at developer Paul Coulombe, the former CEO of White Rock Distillery in Lewiston, who in 2012 invested in the project and was then elected president of the council’s board of directors.

Coulombe in recent years has irked local residents, who say he’s buying up the town and changing its face. In 2012, he purchased Gus Pratt’s general store, at the head of Cozy Harbor in Southport, and after renovations, opened the upscale eatery Oliver’s Cozy Harbor Wharf. Last year, he bought the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, with plans to “bring world class golf” to the region, according to The Lincoln County News.

Last summer, residents of Southport’s Pratt’s Island, just across Cozy Harbor, where Coulombe owns an 18,000-square-foot estate, joined environmentalists in opposing plans by Coulombe to blast ledge and dredge a nearby cove to allow his 29-foot yacht to access his dock at all tides. The plan was ultimately withdrawn.

Phone calls to Coulombe’s Southport home in recent weeks have gone unanswered.

Following Coulombe’s election, the council hired The Knickerbocker Group — which built Coulombe’s estate on Pratt’s Island — along with a professional interior designer and landscape architect.

Three members subsequently resigned from the volunteer council, including Gamage, who in 2006 had accepted the deed to The Cuckolds.

Gamage did not respond to phone calls from the Bangor Daily News.

The renovation process also went forward at times without proper approval from the National Park Service, which oversees the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act Program. As a result, the council was required to redo the lightkeepers’ quarters.

“They initially talked about doing it as a true reconstruction, and it was close, but it was not a true reconstruction,” Bonnie Halda, chief for preservation assistance at the park service, said Monday. “We worked with them to say that it was a compatible structure, but [we told them], ‘You do have to make some changes here and there.’”

In another case, Halda said a complex dock, pier and float system constructed without prior review by the NPS was allowed to remain — with modifications — after the council hired “a good team of preservationists” who conducted additional research to show why the dock system was necessary and was the only alternative that allowed safe access to the island, given the strong tides and currents.

Comments from local residents resulted in other requirements, including using less reflective painting on the dock, she said.

Halda said that regardless of the missteps in the process, “it ended up as a project that is going to be approved. We know that there are people who are not happy with the end results, but we are comfortable that it meets our standards.”

Reingold said the council had no idea it would face such “acrimony” in the community, when the original goal was, in part, community-building.

“The irony is we really naively thought getting involved would be a way to give back and galvanize everybody around a common purpose,” she said.

 

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