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Embattled Beacons
Sunday, June 28, 1998 (Front Page)  —  Charleston Post and Courier

File Photo:(Black and White) The Morris Island Lighthouse stands in 10 feet of water at low tide in the Atlantic Ocean. Local groups want to preserve the tower before it falls in the ocean.

Black and white map showing location of Morris Island Lighthouse.

Fifty years ago, the Morris Island Lighthouse stood at the edge of the ocean, as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse does today.

In the late 1930s, the keepers of the Morris Island Lighthouse debated not how to move it, but how many years were left before they abandoned it to the sea.

Before the lighthouse was engulfed by the ocean, however, they drove steel beams and poured 18 inches of concrete around it for protection. Within 10 years, the ocean swept across the edge of Morris Island on which the lighthouse was built, and the sea rose around it.

And there the lighthouse stands today, rising 158 feet out of the sea between Folly Beach and Morris Island.

Local groups say they want the lighthouse preserved and protected against the sea that daily smashes against it. It now stands in feet of water at low tide, and they wonder how long it will continue to stand.

State and local government officials appear interested in taking over the lighthouse, but they don't want the responsibility, and cost, that may come with it.

Last July, the S.C. Attorney General's office said the state would file a lawsuit to claim ownership of the Morris Island Lighthouse.

State ownership was widely seen as the first step needed to restore the historic lighthouse that towers above Lighthouse Inlet.

A year has passed. A lawsuit was never filed.

"It's a complex issue and a unique property", said Ken Woodington, senior assistant attorney general who said last year the state would file the lawsuit. "It needs to be managed in a way that would best serve the public by an entity that's equipped to manage it".

Rather than the state suing to get clear title, Woodington suggests that the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission buy the lighthouse from its private owner for less than $100,000.

Although he does not doubt the state would win a lawsuit, it could drag out the ownership question two years or longer and legal costs could exceed the owner's asking price, Woodington said.

Problem is, Charleston County park commissioners aren't sure they want the lighthouse. They don't have the money needed to restore it, they said.

"I don't think anyone knows what to do with it", Commission Chairman Miles Martschink said last week.

At the urging of a group of residents who hope to protect and preserve the lighthouse, the park commission asked Attorney General Charles Condon to seek ownership, Martschink said.

The state claimed the land on which the lighthouse sat was underwater and therefore belonged to the state. The private property owner, Columbia businessman Paul Gunter, obtained the lighthouse in a foreclosure suit several years ago and claimed that the state did not own what was above the water - the lighthouse itself.

Martschink said the commission has waited the last year for the state to get ownership.

"Fortunately, the state stepped in and said `we'll take it from here' and once they took up the reins, we stepped away from it", he said.

The commission is expected to consider an offer to buy the lighthouse from Gunter next month, although Martschink said he did not know one had been made.

Jamison Cox, Gunter's attorney, said he offered to sell the lighthouse to the park commission for less than the original asking price of $100,000. But he's not heard back from the park commission's attorney, Cox said.

"We assumed it had fallen by the wayside for them and was no longer a hot issue", Cox said.

Barbara Schoch, chairwoman of the private group that supports preservation of the lighthouse, said she is disappointed the state did not keep its promise to claim ownership.

But she's heartened that negotiations apparently continue for purchase of the lighthouse, she said.

"Somebody ought to move on it fast", said Johnny Ohlandt, a member of the Morris Island Committee. "You have a lot of people interested in it".

State Rep. Lynn Seithel, R-James Island, who had asked Woodington for a status report on the lighthouse, said she's disappointed no more progress has been made.

A meeting is needed with the Attorney General's office and the park commission to discuss options for obtaining the lighthouse, she said.

The Morris Island Committee, a group of James and Folly islands residents, has urged the park commission to buy the lighthouse. Group members said Gunter's offer to sell presented a historic opportunity to place the venerable structure in the public's hands after being owned for the last 20 years by a business owned by S.E. "Speedy" Felkel.

Gunter obtained the lighthouse from Felkel several years ago in a foreclosure suit.

The lighthouse, built on Morris Island in 1876, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of 752 traditional lighthouses remaining in the country.

The Army Corps of Engineers has said it is prepared to conduct a structural survey of the lighthouse, but not until the ownership question is settled.

Meanwhile, the entrance to the lighthouse was boarded up more than a month ago because of concerns over vandals and lawsuits if someone was injured, Woodington and Cox said.

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