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The state agreed to take over the historic Morris Island Lighthouse on Friday in a unanimous vote followed by a roar of applause from Lowcountry residents.
The spontaneous celebration continued until Danny Ford, former Clemson football coach, had to shout to calm the happy crowd at a board meeting of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Ford and other members of the board agreed to buy the lighthouse for $1 from Save the Light Inc., placing it in the public's hands after 38 years of private ownership and neglect.
"It's clearly a signal not only to Lowcountry residents, but to the entire state, that this is an asset worth saving, that our heritage is important, and that this lighthouse is important to many, many people," said Robert New, co-chairman of Save the Light.
"It belongs to all of us," he said.
The nonprofit, grassroots organization of mostly local residents bought the lighthouse from a Columbia businessman last year, but has not had the millions it will take to stabilize and restore it.
By donating the lighthouse to the state, the lighthouse restoration project becomes immediately eligible for state and federal funding.
The 158-foot-high lighthouse, built in 1876, has been battered by the sea for 60 years, since a sandy spit of the island on which it once sat washed away. It now stands in the water 1,600 feet off the shore of Morris Island.
The image of the faded black and white lighthouse in the water is among the most recognizable and popular images of the state and its maritime history, Save the Light director Doug Bostick told natural resource board members.
"It's one of those images that anchors us to our history and heritage," he said.
The board's decision must still be approved by the S.C. Budget and Control Board and local state legislators. The Natural Resources department must also determine that the lighthouse can be stabilized before the agreement is final.
Preliminary studies have shown that the lighthouse can be shored up, possibly by building a foundation around it.
Friday's decision is a huge step in preserving the lighthouse, but it's not at all the last, New said.
"Everybody now has to realize that the toughest part is still to come," he said.
Save the Light has raised about $250,000, and the state is contributing $500,000 toward restoration of the lighthouse. The Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to spend up to $1 million for the stabilization study, contingent upon the state's ownership, New has said.
That leaves millions of dollars of private money that must still be raised, he said.
Through the agreement, Natural Resources will own the lighthouse as a Heritage Preserve, a special designation for historic and archaeological significant properties.
The agency will lease the lighthouse to Save the Light for a small fee for 99 years. Save the Light is responsible for $1 million in liability insurance and maintaining the lighthouse.
Access to the lighthouse - its entrance is now boarded - shall be limited for historical research and promotions for fund raising, according to the agreement.
Natural Resources board members approved the sales and lease agreement after a brief discussion. The agency was initially worried about liability and cost, but the concerns were resolved after months of negotiations.
Board Chairman Joab Lesesne said preservation of the lighthouse is a classic example of a local community and the state working together to protect a beautiful and treasured icon.
"Local initiatives like this are what's going to be necessary for us to protect the resources of the state," he said.