Cuckolds Light almost ready for visitors, but local concerns remain

Wed, 05/07/2014 - 9:30am

Story Location:
Cuckolds Island
Southport  Maine
United States

While the Cuckolds Council works to complete permitting and construction so the restored Cuckolds Fog Signal and Light Station off the tip of Southport Island can welcome its first visitors this summer, concerns on Southport Island currently focus on where utility lines carrying water, electricity and sewage will cross.

But some on Southport are also concerned about a restoration project they believe has changed course over its 10-year journey.

The effort to restore the Cuckolds began in 2004, when the former light station at the entrance to Boothbay Harbor was decommissioned by the Coast Guard and made available to interested parties. Southport summer residents Janet Reingold and Philip Yasinski initiated the idea to obtain and restore the iconic light station, and over the life of the project, they have gathered together hundreds of avid volunteers and supporters.

The Cuckolds restoration saga, from construction, to island goats, to senatorial visits, has been captured in the pages of the Boothbay Register over the years. Along with regular progress reports, there has also been news of financial mismanagement and occasional letters to the editor from Southport residents opposed to the project or specific aspects of it.

As with any large endeavor, particularly one that requires the blessing of several federal and state agencies, the Cuckolds project has known obstacles and controversy.

Entrepreneur and Southport Island resident Paul Coulombe, whose philanthropy and economic development ventures are changing the landscape of the Boothbay peninsula, has recently had a hand in both resolving obstacles and, for some, in raising controversy.

When Coulombe joined the Cuckolds board of directors as president in 2012, Knickerbocker Group and other professional designers replaced the former volunteer construction and design committee.

“Ten years ago this was a community project with all volunteers,” Gerry Gamage said. “But that’s veered off. It’s not about the community anymore. It’s not a volunteer effort anymore, and that’s the sad part.”

Gamage, selectman and unofficial “mayor of Southport,” was involved with the Cuckolds restoration effort from day one. Gamage lived on Portland Head Light for a time as a child and his affiliation with the Coast Guard, lighthouses, Southport town government, and the ocean made the Cuckolds project a natural fit.

It was Gamage who accepted the Cuckolds deed on behalf of the community in Boston in 2006. He served as the Cuckolds Council President until 2012 and was deeply involved in the actual hands-on work of restoring the Cuckolds Light and Keeper’s House. Gamage even fed the goats who summered on the western Cuckolds for two seasons.

Coincident with the professional hires, volunteers Gamage, Ed Green and Martin Moore, who served as the project’s construction committee, resigned from the council.

Coulombe said the decision to engage professional assistance was necessary to alter the project’s slow progress.

“I went to a couple of meetings, and I thought things were not moving forward at a reasonable pace,” Coulombe said. “With volunteer projects, things always move slower. I thought we weren’t making much headway, and my main goal was to really see that it got finished.”

The professional team worked to address construction details that did not comply with National Park Service standards for historical preservation, and to obtain necessary permits from federal, state and local entities. When completed, the Cuckolds Fog Signal will meet historical preservation standards and will be the focus of educational tours. The keeper’s house and boat house are considered compatible (but not historically accurate) structures.

According to some, the designers didn’t just work to right the wrongs, they also designed a project different than the one envisioned in the original Cuckolds’ restoration plan. In particular, the plan to recreate the keeper’s house as it existed at an earlier time changed to a modern, upscale bed and breakfast.

“What was originally a great project to restore the lighthouse we all adored morphed into a B&B for hedge-fund types,” said Meredith Knowlton, whose house at Newagen, which was once her grandparents, offers a view of the Cuckolds from the front porch.

From the early days of the restoration project, Knowlton and other Southport Islanders have lobbied for a project that restored only the fog signal, not the keeper’s house, and that did not include overnight guests.

The Cuckolds Council’s original 542-page application to the National Park Service included overnight stays as a source of income to provide financial stability. Bonnie Halda, NPS Boston, said the proposed B&B is acceptable under NPS guidelines.

“We are mandated to have this be financially self-sustaining, and that is our fondest dream,” Reingold said. “Overnight stays are one of the revenue streams we envision to make this self-sustaining.”

“The project has always been the same. It’s always been a two-bedroom B&B, always with innkeepers,” Coulombe said. “The physical plan hasn’t changed at all; we just upgraded the interiors a bit.”

Under the upgrade, the former two-family keeper’s house has been recreated as a two-bedroom suite, elegantly equipped with modern amenities and available for overnight guests starting at $350 per night.

Coulombe said attracting “hedge-fund types” is exactly what the proposal seeks, and that it is a part of his vision for putting the Boothbay region on the map.

“Having the Cuckolds as a B&B brings a lot of attention to the area and a lot of interest from PFAs (people from away) that want to have a lighthouse experience first-hand,” Coulombe said. “If I can bring PFAs with discretionary income to town, it’s a plus for the economy. I’m a big proponent of business and boosting the local economy.”

Some island residents have questioned how education and public tours, a key part of the project, will coincide with the private rentals. Reingold said education and public access remain central to the Cuckolds’ mission. Halda said the Park Service will ensure that public access and educational programming occurs.

The Cuckolds are known for being difficult to access and to take the full brunt of storms. “People who are savvy about the water have trouble getting onshore. It’s a challenge,” Gamage said. “I’ve been on and off thousands of times and consider myself savvy, but even I’ve been dumped into the water.”

Because of this challenge, Cuckolds visits must be scheduled, Reingold said. “We will be hosting historic tours by appointment and private launch,” Reingold said. “This season we are starting slowly. We want people to understand the Cuckolds is a place that is available and can be used and booked as is for meetings, retreats, etc.”

To some, the Cuckolds’ seclusion and ruggedness is an attraction, to others a concern — and a potential flaw in the idea of routinely renting rooms on the island. “The island is an exquisite place in any weather,” Reingold said. “Its view, the sense of being with nature it affords is remarkable.”

But Gamage added a local’s caution, “You may be booked for July 4, but Mother Nature may have a different plan.”

 While Knickerbocker Group works to complete all the details that will allow guests and caretakers to occupy the Cuckolds, the Inn at Cuckolds Light is already making a splash in the media, including full-page ads in Downeast and other magazines, and a feature in the New York Times Sunday Travel Section.

Despite the fears and concerns of some Southport Islanders, the Cuckolds appear to be on the brink of opening some time this summer. Halda said the Park Service has no concerns with the project that cannot be resolved. Knickerbocker Group is presently hard at work to obtain federal, state and local permits for the utility line crossing, mainland septic field and occupancy.

It appears that the next stage in the life of the Cuckolds Island Fog Signal and Light Station is about to begin.

For those for whom Maine is all about “lighthouses and lobsters,” the Boothbay region has now penciled in a new, unique venue.