November 27, 2019

© Friends of the Pool
Alligator Reef Light, located four miles off Islamorada, could change hands in the near future. The local Friends of the Pool group has submitted an application to take over ownership of the 135-foot-tall historic structure.

© Friends of the Pool Alligator Reef Light, located four miles off Islamorada, could change hands in the near future. The local Friends of the Pool group has submitted an application to take over ownership of the 135-foot-tall historic structure.

ISLAMORADA — Ownership of Alligator Reef Light should be in the hands of people who see it nearly every day, say Friends of the Pool backers.

“Our application has been submitted, so it’s a big waiting game right now,” Larry Herlth said earlier this week. “At this point, we are the hometown team.”

Rob Dixon and “Lighthouse Larry” Herlth, officers of the Friends of the Pool nonprofit organization in Islamorada, finished months of work on a massive application and restoration plan for the 135-foot-tall offshore light earlier this month.

Their proposal was dispatched Nov. 12 to the federal General Services Administration and the National Parks Service for review.

“It’s been hundreds of hours and hundreds of pages since we started in January,” Dixon said. “We’ve worked really hard to get our homework done, and we think it’s pretty rock solid.”

Combined, two copies of the thick proposal weigh in at nearly 8 pounds.

“It’s stunning how in-depth it is,” Herlth said.

Six lighthouses, from Fowey Reef off Miami-Dade County to Sand Key off Key West, were built in the mid-to-late 1800s to warn ships away from the Keys dangerous reef shallows and serve as navigation markers.

Now cheaper and technologically advanced systems have replaced the aging lighthouses. The lights are historic and symbolic — Alligator Reef Light is the centerpiece of Islamorada’s village seal — but also costly to maintain.

The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act allows eligible groups like government agencies and nonprofits to acquire the lights “for educational, park, recreational, cultural or historic preservation purposes.”

“If it’s awarded to us, we expect it will be at least a five-year, $5 million project,” said Dixon, captain of the Challenger offshore charter boat. “But we’re confident that we’ve got a lot of local support. Some of the bigger names in town are behind us.”

“If we get it, we’ll be overseeing every aspect of the restoration,” Herlth said. “It will be completely hands-on.”

Other nonprofit groups submitted bids.

“People are applying from all over, the Carolinas and the [Florida] Panhandle,” Dixon said. “Our roots are here, so I think it would be a shame if it went to another entity. Alligator Light is a focal point for our community. People see it every day driving up and down U.S. 1. It’s like our baby Statue of Liberty.”

Herlth started the Swim for Alligator Light event in 2013, four miles out to the reef and four miles back. RedBull.com recently anointed the swim as one of the “Toughest Swimming Challenges in the World.” Kayakers accompany the swimmers for safety.

“Now we’ve had to cap it at 500 people,” Dixon said. “We had 137 solo swimmers and 300 team relay swimmers this year.”

The swim helps Friends of the Pool contribute to programs at the Ron Levy Aquatic Center at Founders Park and raises awareness of the lighthouse situation.

“A government survey said Alligator Light could stand for another 15 to 25 years, but the survey was 10 years ago,” Dixon said. “It could go another 50 years, but obviously something needs to be done.

“Our first step is done. Now it’s time to take the next step. We’ve got web cams ready to go up, sunrise and sunset cams. How beautiful would that be?”

kwadlow@keysnews.com