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The S.C. Heritage Trust Advisory Board voted Thursday to take steps toward obtaining the Morris Island Lighthouse.
Board officials had said before the meeting that the board would probably not vote because of a lack of information and concerns about the cost of maintaining the historic lighthouse, which rises from the sea off Folly Beach.
But on Thursday, the board unanimously instructed its staff to negotiate purchase of the lighthouse with its owner, Save the Light Inc. The purchase would need approval of the board and other state agencies.
"We're very encouraged. There are obviously lingering concerns, but it's clear that they're interested in saving the lighthouse" said Save the Light Co-Chairman Robert New.
Save the Light first asked Heritage Trust in May to take over the lighthouse. The grass-roots organization says it doesn't have the estimated $1.5 to $2 million needed to stabilize the lighthouse, which it bought from a Columbia businessman for $75,000.
Save the Light wants to turn the lighthouse over to the state because it has the resources to restore it. Also, $1 million in federal money for erosion control is contingent upon the lighthouse being owned by a government.
Terry Ferguson, chairman of the Heritage Trust board, said it feels strongly that the lighthouse should be preserved but has questions about costs that must still be answered.
"This will be a very high maintenance property, and Heritage Trust is not in the business of working with high maintenance properties. There aren't the resources on the board to do that" Ferguson said.
Heritage Trust wants assurances from Save the Light that the board will not be saddled with high maintenance costs. The board asked its staff to hammer out an agreement with Save the Light in which the state would own the lighthouse and lease it to Save the Light.
Heritage Trust has limited funds to manage its 58 properties totaling 76,000 acres, Ferguson said. It doesn't want maintenance of the lighthouse to use up those funds, he said.
Also, the lighthouse should not compete for Heritage Trust funds to acquire other national and historic sites, he said.
Heritage Trust members also questioned the condition of the lighthouse, what steps would be needed to stabilize it, and how much that would cost.
A recent structural study was inconclusive and the board has received conflicting information about how to save the lighthouse, Ferguson said.
After the meeting, Ferguson also raised the question of whether the cities of Charleston or Folly Beach had been approached to assume ownership of the lighthouse.
"It's an option. The main concern is ultimately who can provide the best long-term support," he said.
New said he hopes a final agreement can be reached and voted on at Heritage Trust's next quarterly meeting in February. Save the Light, which has raised slightly more than $150,000, including the $75,000 for the purchase, believes all questions about cost can be resolved, New said.
"There is no obstacle that can't be overcome," he said.
New said the lighthouse is in the city of Folly Beach, and not in Charleston. But he said that Folly Beach is too small to reflect the broad, statewide public support for saving the historic lighthouse that has stood as a symbol of the state's maritime history since it was built in 1876.