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A state agency Friday deemed the Morris Island Lighthouse historic and worthy of protection, a crucial step toward preserving the landmark off Folly Beach.
The S.C. Heritage Trust Advisory Board voted to place the lighthouse on a list of sites recommended for purchase by the state - although several hurdles remain before that might happen.
"The major question everyone had is, 'Can the lighthouse be saved?' and we know the answer is 'Yes'," said Doug Bostick, director of Save the Light, the citizen's group that owns the lighthouse.
Built in 1876, the lighthouse rises 158 feet above the ocean that has pounded it relentlessly since the sandy island on which it sat eroded away.
Fearing the lighthouse might one day topple into the surrounding sea, Save the Light mounted a drive to buy and restore it.
Save the Light has said it doesn't have the up to $2 million for the restoration and turned to the state and federal government for help.
Also, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can't conduct engineering studies until the lighthouse is in public hands.
Save the Light bought the lighthouse from a Columbia businessman for $75,000 and plans to donate it to the state. The state will then lease it back to the nonprofit organization, which will continue to raise money for the restoration.
While the Heritage Trust board's unanimous vote is a small step toward the state's purchase, it's also vital. State agencies defer to the board's recommendations that sites are historically or culturally significant before agreeing to purchase.
The board placed the lighthouse on a list of 60 other sites across the state, representing more than 75,000 acres that are protected under the S.C. Heritage Trust Act.
That action recognizes the importance of the lighthouse, but doesn't commit the state to buying it, said Heritage Trust Director Tom Kohlsaat.
That decision must be made by the board of the S.C. Natural Resources Department. Bostick said he hopes the board will vote to buy the lighthouse at their meeting later this month or next month.
While state officials say the lighthouse is an important symbol of the state's maritime history, they have also raised questions about the cost to stabilize, restore and maintain it. Another concern is the state's liability once it owns the structure.
Kohlsaat said Friday that he couldn't disclose details of the sale negotiations between the state and Save the Light.
The S.C. Budget and Control Board and state legislators from Charleston County must also approve the purchase of the lighthouse, which is on the National Register.