John Wilson, founder of the Outer Banks Conservationists, was in Boston last week at a preservation conference, extolling the virtues of nonprofit ownership of historic landmarks. Wilson knows a lot about the subject. Last fall, his group was awarded the deed to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, a historic beacon that OBC has spent millions of dollars and years of "sweat equity" restoring.
But closer to home, those virtues are harder to see. While Wilson was at the conference, he learned that Currituck County--which recently lost a hard-fought competition with OBC for ownership of the light--was drafting a letter giving its new owners 10 days to bring the lighthouse into compliance with local zoning rules or face $100-a-day fines.
"I guess they're going to tell us we are too high and too bright," jokes Wilson, whose great-grandfather was a Currituck lighthouse keeper.
The county insists that it is treating OBC "like any other business," as County Manager Dan Scanlon puts it, in asking the group to provide additional parking and restrooms required by Currituck's Unified Development Ordinance.
"This is not news," Scanlon says. "We let the Outer Banks Conservationists know months ago that they needed to either come in to the county, or do something to show that they are going to meet the requirements. We've heard nothing from them."
But others say the nonprofit is being set up to fail by being asked to do what the county knows is impossible on the small tract of land the tower occupies. (That eight-tenths of an acre is surrounded by a larger parcel of state-owned land and sits next to a swath of county-owned land that some local officials hope to develop into a major tourist attraction.)
"With other businesses, they don't invoke these restrictions they know cannot be complied with," says Currituck Commissioner Ernie Bowden, who supported the county's initial ownership bid for the lighthouse but has been critical of its recent actions. "I have put the question to the county on at least four different occasions: If the ownership situation were reversed, how would the county comply with this? They have not answered."
Zoning, it appears, is the latest skirmish in what has been a long and bitter struggle over the Currituck light. In 2001, OBC and the county submitted competing applications for ownership of the brick tower, a former Coast Guard property that sits on one of the most rapidly developing sections of the Outer Banks.
When the federal government decided in favor of OBC's conservation-oriented proposals, the county enlisted help from Republican Congressman Walter B. Jones. The conservative lawmaker engineered a series of delays and even an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security in his efforts to support the county's bid [See "The Fight for the Light," The Independent, Nov. 19-25, 2003].
Although OBC was awarded the deed to the tower last October, Jones succeeded in having some major strings attached: The deed required the nonprofit to submit a government audit and put in escrow $180,000 raised but not yet spent for lighthouse repairs while the feds determine if any of that money should be returned. That decision is still pending. Meanwhile, correspondence OBC received earlier this month from North Carolina's Auditor refers to a recent "legislative request" for a state audit of lighthouse finances. The state auditor's office will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the request.
Staffers at Jones' congressional office say they are not familiar with it.
The county officially raised the zoning issue Jan. 30 in a letter OBC received from Scanlon asking the group to apply for a permit to operate the lighthouse as a museum. The letter--which gave no deadline for the application--said a parking standard of 125 onsite spaces would be enforced and that "restrooms sized for the number of visitors will also be recommended."
Making good on threats county officials had voiced during the ownership fight, the letter also stated that Currituck would no longer allow OBC to use restrooms on nearby county-owned property--restrooms the nonprofit had contributed money to help build--to meet zoning requirements. Scanlon says that's because those will now be needed to accommodate a new wildlife education center the state is constructing nearby.
The crux of the county's argument comes in the next-to-last paragraph of the letter, which focuses on the change in ownership of the beacon.
"Because of the transfer [of ownership], the [state-owned] property containing the Keeper's Quarters and the Gift Shop must be rezoned because the Lighthouse is no longer the principal use of the property," it says.
But OBC leaders want to know, since when are zoning permits required on the basis of a change in ownership, rather than a change in use of a property?
"It makes no sense," Wilson says. "Otherwise you couldn't go out and buy a restaurant or a gas station anywhere in this country."
Further, Wilson believes that because the lighthouse was opened to the public in 1990--two years before the county's Unified Development Ordinance was passed--the tower should be "grandfathered in" as an acceptable "nonconforming" use.
OBC leaders are concerned that, save the absence of an application for a permit, the county has failed to cite any specific zoning violations at the lighthouse (none were cited during phone interviews for this story, either).
And they're not the only ones raising questions. The state Department of Cultural Resources, which leases land at the lighthouse to OBC and had initially applied for joint ownership of the tower, has asked the state Attorney General's Office to investigate whether Currituck County can apply its Unified Development Ordinance to the lighthouse property.
While county leaders stick to the mantra that they are treating the lighthouse like any other local business, the nature of that treatment has raised some eyebrows in the local press.
No fines were mentioned in a verbal warning the county sheriff's department delivered to the lighthouse April 12. That warning also failed to detail any specific zoning violations, though it did set a deadline of 10 days for OBC to apply for a "conditional use" permit for the tower.
Lighthouse Keeper Jenn Barr, a former Chapel Hill resident, told The Outer Banks Sentinel that the officer who arrived with the warning told her he was not given any paperwork to serve. In that same account, the county attorney described the sheriff's visit as "a courtesy call." Ten days later, the letter warning of impending fines was on its way.
Some observers speculate privately that the zoning issue is a way for the county to gain leverage for a plan to put paved parking, bathhouses and public toilets on the wilderness portion of the lighthouse tract--an idea state preservation leaders and OBC members have spoken out against in the past. Others describe it as payback for the county's losing out on owning the tower.
Whatever the reason for the current wrangling, Bowden says it does nothing to aid preservation of the landmark light--the county's primary tourist attraction.
"What I can't lose sight of is that OBC has done all the restorations with private donations at a time when this county was ready to burn that tower down as a public nuisance," he says. "If I were Mr. Wilson, I would padlock the lighthouse and rent out six or eight billboards that say: 'Closed due to restrictions placed on us by the county. '"