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Morris Island Light Faces New Storm
December 23, 2004  —  Charleston Post and Courier

Sanford May Block More Funding to Save Landmark

Reprinted from the Charleston Post and Courier

December 23, 2004

By Robert Behre of the Post and Courier staff

A project to stabilize the Morris Island Lighthouse, a Lowcountry icon threatened on all sides by the Atlantic Ocean, now faces a new hazard: concerns by Gov. Mark Sanford that using taxpayer dollars to save it would be "throwing money into the sea."

The unexpected hurdle comes as members of the nonprofit group Save the Light closed in on their $600,000 fund-raising goal and grew optimistic that construction finally would start.

Now they wonder why the state Budget and Control Board, which owns the lighthouse, failed to sign a construction agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month. The pact, which outlines who pays what in the first phase of construction, is a key step to moving ahead.

"We are very concerned right now. We feel that each day that goes by is a day the costs go up," said Jack Corgan of Save the Light. He said the lighthouse "has a little bit weaker foundation every day that goes by."

The brick lighthouse lists about 0.7 degrees, though recent surveys have found that the lean isn't getting worse.

The state has committed $500,000 to the project, the first phase of which would stop erosion around the lighthouse's base. That involves installing a steel cofferdam surrounded by a ring of massive boulders.

Delbert Singleton, a budget board spokesman, said the board could revisit the question when it meets Jan. 25.

State Rep. Wallace Scarborough, R-Charleston, who worked to transfer lighthouse ownership to the board, said the problem seems to be that Sanford isn't willing to consider any state funding above the $500,000.

"It's very disheartening to me that the governor is not going to support this project. It is a state-owned property, just like the governor's mansion, just like anything else we own," Scarborough said. "I haven't spoken to the governor on this issue. I'm just disappointed that we're not going to save this state treasure."

At the board meeting, Sanford said he was concerned that the state was "literally throwing money into the sea." Sanford said he wants to make sure taxpayers aren't responsible for an "open-ended commitment" and that he wants "to put brackets around the edges" to ensure the state's share won't rise above $500,000.

Sanford spokesman Will Folks denied the governor was neglecting a state treasure.

"We certainly feel the state has done more than its share," Folks said. "The understanding was that the balance would be raised by private dollars."

Corgan said the private dollars have been raised, but, as with any construction work, there's a possibility of cost overruns. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is putting in two-thirds of the $3.2 million cost of the project, is unwilling to cover any overruns.

Former Folly Beach Mayor Richard Beck, who is with Save the Light, said the budget board discussed the lighthouse behind closed doors, so the exact reasons the agreement wasn't signed are unknown.

"All we know is ... the project is stopped," he said. "We've lost 30 days. Hopefully, that's all we've lost."

Corgan said he will try to meet with Sanford to figure out what can be done to get the project back on track. Save the Light hopes to begin construction on the first phase in the summer.

Another delay could demoralize lighthouse supporters, who already lost a year when the original state agency that owned the lighthouse, the state Department of Natural Resources, decided it didn't have the authority to get the job done. It took that long for ownership to be transferred to the budget board.

"At some point, it's pretty hard to keep coming back," Corgan said. "The whole thing just gets harder and harder."

Before the erosion control work can begin, Save the Light also must get permission from the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission to use the old Coast Guard property for a staging area during construction.

If the erosion control work is done, then Save the Light would turn its attention to the second phase of the work, which involves repairing the foundation by injecting concrete through the wood-piling foundation to fill any areas eaten by worms.

The final phase involves cosmetic work, including a paint job that would restore its original appearance: two horizontal black stripes on a field of white.

The lighthouse, stranded in the surf off Morris Island, won't be restored for public visits of its interior.

~ Staff writer John McDermott contributed to this story. ~

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