Lighthouse upkeep is difficult at the best of times, now structural issues at the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland could force the nonprofit that owns it to close the light to the public and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make needed repairs.

That’s on top of the possibility that the trust could be taxed by the city under a state budget proposal by Gov. Paul LePage that would eliminate municipal revenue sharing and give communities the power to tax nonprofits with holdings worth more than $500,000.

The lighthouse was transferred to the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust in 1998 under the Maine Lights Program. The group is composed entirely of volunteer trustees and receives no money from state, federal or local governments to assist with the upkeep of the historic structure, which was built in 1897.

The lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places and is visited by more than 3,500 people each year, according to Keith Thompson, chairman of the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust.

Under the terms of the agreement that transferred ownership of the lighthouse, located at the end of a breakwater at Fort Preble, the trust must maintain and preserve the light and make it available to the public for educational and recreational purposes.

Thompson said that entrance fees and sales of T-shirts and other lighthouse memorabilia during the summer months are the primary sources of revenue for the trust.

“The funds required to accomplish the (needed lighthouse) repairs are well beyond what the trust can raise on its own,” he said. “We anticipate that multiple grants or substantial donations will be required to accomplish the repairs in stages.”

Thompson said the trust commissioned a report on the structural integrity of the lighthouse because it’s been 25 years since any such study had been completed.

He said the last engineering survey of the lighthouse was completed in 1990 for the U.S. Coast Guard and the trust felt it was past time to commission a new study in order to assess the physical integrity of the structure and determine what the critical priorities are for future capital projects.

Becker Structural Engineers of Portland, with help from both Gredell & Associates in Delaware and Ocean Technical Services in Texas, were hired to conduct the new engineering survey of the lighthouse, according to Thompson.

The survey, which was completed last spring and summer, included a visual inspection, as well as an ultrasonic inspection of the lower caisson. The study was paid for using grants from the Davis Family Foundation and the Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust, according to Thompson.

While the report said that the lighthouse is “in generally good repair,” it also expressed concern about the deterioration of the lower portion of the caisson, particularly in the inter-tidal zone.”

In a press release issued by the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust last week, breaches between the cast iron plates that make up the exterior of the caisson have allowed water to enter and weaken the integrity of the cement that fills the bottom 30 feet of the structure.

Loss of too much plate integrity could require replacement, which would be “an expensive and difficult process since few mills today produce (the necessary) cast iron sheets,” the press release said.

The total costs for the repairs could exceed $300,000 and could go as high as $500,000, according to Thompson.

“The challenge for the trust is to raise funds through grants and donations to take action now to stop any further deterioration,” he added.

He said the trust’s highest priority at this point is to find a way to repair the lower portion of the caisson located in the inter-tidal zone, since it is alternately exposed and submerged by the tides.

“Water has entered the caisson through cracks in the cast iron plates and freezing and thawing has resulted in a process called ice jacking, where pressure from the freezing water forces the plates outward, causing more cracking and allowing more water to enter and contribute to the process,” Thompson told the Current this week.

In the 17 years since the lighthouse was deeded to the trust, the group has conducted only routine maintenance, including repainting the exterior four years ago. In addition, temporary repairs have been made to seal cracks in the upper part of the caisson and to mitigate leaks in the lantern room.

“Overall, the structure is in good shape and remains an active aid to navigation, with the light and fog signal maintained and operated by the Coast Guard,” Thompson said. But now a significant capital investment is required to keep it that way.

In terms of the possibility of receiving a property tax bill from South Portland for the lighthouse, Thompson said, “The trust would almost certainly be unable to afford (such) taxes should the city choose to impose them,” particularly since all proceeds generated by the trust are used to operate the lighthouse, support grant applications and do educational outreach.

The lighthouse has an appraised value of $2.1 million, according to the city assessor.

“(Gov.) LePage’s tax proposal would allow the trust to be taxed, (but) it’s also unclear how the tax picture is affected by the fact that the lighthouse is still an active aid to navigation,” Thompson said.

He added, “The worst-case scenario, I presume, would be for the trust, if unable to afford the taxes, to dissolve. Our successor organization is the South Portland Historical Society, which likewise would almost certainly be unable to afford the taxes.”

“In such a case,” Thompson said, “the lighthouse would likely revert back to the Coast Guard, (which) would take the lighthouse off of the tax rolls, since the city cannot tax the federal government, (so) this would appear to be a lose-lose proposition.”

See www.springpointlight.org for more information on the lighthouse, the engineering survey and the 2014 annual report.

The Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland is on the National Register of Historic Places and is visited by more than 3,500 people each year. Staff photos by Kate Irish CollinsSales of tickets to tour the lighthouse, as well as of T-shirts and other paraphernalia, are the main sources of revenue for the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust.


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