~ article ~
The effort to buy and restore the Morris Island Lighthouse has stalled over a central question: Just who owns the historic structure off Folly Beach?
The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, which had expressed interest in buying the lighthouse from a private owner for $100,000, was stymied over the ownership question Thursday.
The state could claim ownership of the lighthouse, apparently because it is on land that has become submerged by the sea. Also, there appears to be a federal lien on the property, commission Chairman Ray Passailaigue said.
Commissioners discussed the legal questions behind closed doors Thursday and took no action. Afterward, at least two commissioners said they would prefer that the state, not the park commission, buy the lighthouse.
"It would be the best of both worlds for the state to own it because we don't want to be saddled with a black hole in the ocean" Passailaigue said, referring to the liability and maintenance costs involved with owning the lighthouse.
A vocal group of residents has pushed the park commission to buy the lighthouse, now surrounded by the sea. It is the first time in decades a private property owner has been willing to sell, supporters say.
Robert New, a spokesman for the group, said the park commission should move forward on the project.
"It's a Lowcountry landmark that needs to be protected by the people of this community. It would be difficult to rally the people Upstate to support a lighthouse when it has little meaning in their lives" New said.
New also chided the park commissioners' reluctance. "Preserving the lighthouse is a great deal more than dollars and cents. It's about preserving an important symbol of our history. It's clearly a part of the mission of the PRC".
The lighthouse has been up for sale since Columbia businessman Paul Gunter offered it to the park commission for $100,000. Gunter obtained the lighthouse from Charleston businessman S.E. "Speedy" Felkel in a foreclosure. Felkel's company had owned the lighthouse for more than 20 years.
Gunter's attorney, Jamison Cox, was not at the park commission meeting Thursday, but he later said that the federal lien is against Felkel, not against the business that had owned the lighthouse.
The state can claim ownership of land which is under water, Cox said, "but what is above water would belong to Mr. Gunter".
The park commission's attorney, Sam Applegate, and an attorney with the S.C. Attorney General's office are studying the ownership questions, Passailaigue said.
When built in 1876, the lighthouse was part of a complex of buildings on Morris Island. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of 752 traditional lighthouses remaining in the country.
In recent decades, erosion has swept away the land on which the lighthouse was built, and it now stands in 10 feet of water at low tide.