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North Wildwood changes lock on lighthouse, sparking public feud

Hereford Lighthouse (Bill Barlow/for WHYY)

Hereford Lighthouse (Bill Barlow/for WHYY)

New Jersey has a host of popular lighthouses, but you may not have heard of the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse in North Wildwood. It’s not one of the tall, statuesque pillars that tourists favor, but the Hereford is a workhorse that still serves as a functioning lighthouse. Unique along the East Coast, its design is more common in California and Washington state.

Its tower is just under 50 feet, far lower than its nearest lighthouse neighbor — the classic tall tower of Cape May Point Lighthouse. When it was completed in 1874, however, it was the tallest building on the island.  It fact, it was one of the only buildings on the island.

After the light was automated in 1964, the building was boarded up and left to deteriorate for years. By 1982, the city took control of the lighthouse, though it remained state property.

Now a very public fight is blazing over who should rightfully manage the Victorian-era lighthouse overlooking the Hereford Inlet.

Under new management

The Friends of the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, formed to run day-to-day operations under a contract with the city of North Wildwood, has been locked out of the building.

Steve Murray, chairman of the Friends of the Lighthouse board of trustees, called the move political, driven by Mayor Patrick Rosenello. Murray said it could undo years of restoration work, changing the lighthouse from a respected interpretive museum to a welcome center for the city.

The mayor, in turn, said the group has not capably managing the lighthouse operation, as well as refusing to make what he called needed changes.

Murray has overstepped his authority, threatened to sue a neighbor and verbally abused city employees, Rosenello said. Moreover, required annual reports were never filed.

He said the city had little choice but to take over.

The Friends organization’s agreement with the city runs out at the end of this year. But the change is not going to wait for the end of the month. On Dec. 4, a specialist hired by North Wildwood began taking inventory at the lighthouse. At the same time, the city literally locked out the Friends, changing the locks on the building.

Recently, the community gathered at the lighthouse as it does most years for the annual tree lighting.

But on social media and on the pages of area newspapers, the Friends of the Lighthouse have launched a campaign to be reinstated.

Hereford Inlet Lighthouse is located in North Wildwood, New Jersey. (Alan Tu via Google Earth)

No agreement on operation

The lighthouse is owned by the state, and leased by the city through the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

In 2011, North Wildwood officials signed an agreement with the Friends group, made up primarily of people who had been involved with the lighthouse restoration and operations already. Things seemed to be  fine, at first.

“Unbeknownst to us, serious management deficiencies began to emerge,” Rosenello said in a recent interview. In the spring of 2016, he said, the city learned that a $17,000 of federal grant money was withheld because deadlines were missed, which he said put the city on the hook for the funds. While that is one of the major points the city has raised, a memo detailing the city’s concerns points to everything from failing to provide proof of insurance to how Murray handled an issue with a neighbor.

This year, Rosenello said, the city needed to make a change. With the approval of the city’s council, he proposed a new agreement.

“The Friends told us that they had no interest in fixing the problems,” Rosenello said. “As a matter of fact, they didn’t want the city involved at all.”

Murray said he believes the mayor deliberately presented an unreasonable proposal, “so outrageous that we just couldn’t agree to it.

He accused the mayor of a power grab, leaving the Friends to run the gift shop and tours, while the city took over everything else. Murray, who has issued a point-by-point response to the mayor’s claims, maintains that the issue with the grant was beyond the group’s control.

“The only person in the world that wants to do this is the mayor,” Murray said.

Now Murray is contemplating an end run around North Wildwood — and the mayor —by seeking a deal directly with the state to put the Friends in charge of the lighthouse.

Similar sites are run directly by nonprofit boards of trustees. “We’re the only lighthouse in the state that’s leased directly to the city,” Murray said. “It’s an archaic system that should have been changed years ago.”

Rosenello suggests the Friends were just in over their heads.

“I am not diminishing Steve Murray’s role. He was very dedicated to that lighthouse. He was passionate about it. That’s the reason why we tried to work with them,” said Rosenello.

Debate moves online

The Friends of the Lighthouse group has enlisted historic and environmental organizations — as well as launching a campaign through social media — asking people to contact the DEP and request that the lighthouse be restored to the group’s oversight. At herefordlighthouse.org, the main page is dominated by an appeal for support and money.

Meanwhile, the city has posted its correspondence with Murray on its website, including letters and resolutions city officials see as supporting their side.

Rosenello does not see a clear path to a compromise. And, as of January, the city will take direct control of the lighthouse operations. North Wildwood is in compliance with its lease with the state, the mayor said, so the city won’t need any further approvals.

But state officials plan to have their say.

“The DEP is aware of the current issue between the Friends group and the city and hopes for an amicable resolution that ensures the continued maintenance, preservation, and operations of this historic structure,” said DEP spokesman Lawrence Hajna. “It should be noted that any changes that may affect the lighthouse or its grounds must be reviewed and approved by the DEP.”

Rosenllo, who said taking over the lighthouse operation won’t add significantly to the city’s budget, and he plans to scrap a $6 entrance fee as unnecessary.

“We’re simply going to return to something that’s worked,” he said. “We’re not looking at this as a moneymaker, that’s for sure.”

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