After years of renovation work, Graves Light resists illegal land grab from Town of Hull
For nearly four centuries, the Town of Hull showed no interest “The Graves,” a hazardous stone ledge at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Even when the federal government surplussed the ledge and its iconic but decrepit lighthouse and offered them for free to neighboring towns, Hull declined the opportunity.
Dave and Lynn Waller bought the unincorporated land at auction in 2013 and refurbished Graves Light to a livable historic landmark, with the $938,000 in proceeds from the sale going to restore Boston Light.
As the Wallers came close to finishing their restoration work, the Hull Town Manager suddenly got interested. Without a town meeting vote or hearing, he surreptitiously tried to annex the property four-and-a-half miles offshore.
The Wallers, who operate Somerville’s Neon Williams sign shop on Joy Street, learned about the annexation last year when Hull sent them a tax bill. “That didn’t make sense,” said Dave. Hull is in Plymouth County. Graves Ledge is in Suffolk County.
The deed, written by the Coast Guard, states that The Graves is “not within the limits of any corporate municipality.”
That’s how it has been since Governor John Winthrop founded Boston in 1630.
Hull Town Manager Phil Lemnios was making a land grab. The Wallers tried to talk to him. But Lemnios wouldn’t talk to the Wallers and he won’t talk to reporters. But James Lampke, Hull’s town council took a different approach “They claim it’s not in Hull’s jurisdiction. We say it is. Or if it’s not in Hull’s jurisdiction, which jurisdiction is it in?”.
“We did a very deep dive into the history of Graves Ledge when we bought it,” Dave Waller says, “but of the countless government maps dating to the 1600s, not one shows Graves anywhere near the town limits of Hull. In fact, we have a copy of Hull’s own Assessor’s map without Graves Ledge included. And then, after we spent six years fixing the place, Hull mysteriously added it to their Assessor’s map and sent us a bill.”
The extensive restoration involved removing tons of debris from the neglected tower, the granite Oil House, and rocks around the ledge. The Wallers had the lighthouse exterior cleaned of a century-old buildup of carbon and soot, repointed the mortar, sealed up the leaks, and cleaned and repainted the interior. They replaced modern glass block windows with historically correct oak framed windows, glazed with safety glass to repel the fury of the waves which can strike the 117-foot tower and send spray over the top. They replaced the Coast Guard’s old steel footbridge, washed away in the “no name” storm of 1991 and rebuilt the granite landing pier below.
Permitting was green-lighted by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Mass Historical Commission, U.S. Coast Guard, and a long list of state and federal agencies. The Wallers work with the Coast Guard since the tower is still an active Aid to Navigation, a stipulation in the deed allows the Coast Guard to maintain the light and fog signal in perpetuity. The couple’s efforts have been recognized with historic preservation awards from the American Lighthouse Foundation and the Boston Preservation Alliance. The Wallers frequently give talks at local historical societies and social groups.
But they won’t allow Hull to annex, tax, and regulate their property because it isn’t in the town. In response, Hull threatened to seize Graves for unclaimed taxes and alleged code violations.
At stake: A tax assessor’s bill of about $3,500 a year.
“We don’t mind paying justly assessed property taxes to a town in which Graves is legally located,” the lighthouse keeper adds. “That’s part of being a citizen. But Hull’s own town counsel can’t even provide an official record that we are part of the town. Why would anyone pay property taxes to a neighboring town? ”
Hull Town Manager Lemnios tried but failed to get the Massachusetts Land Court to recognize the annexation by forcing the Wallers to stop work on the lighthouse or pay the town $25,000 a day.
Public support on social media has quickly grown around the issue, with the overwhelming majority of people rallying around the Wallers and against the attempted annexation. A group of supporters set up a petition page that received a thousand signatures the first day.
Support from around Boston has been pouring in to Graves Light’s Facebook page. Here are some representative comments:
Kim L.: “They [Hull] were offered that land a long time ago and passed on it, but now because the renovations are complete all Hull sees is $$$.”
David G.: “I’m pretty sure my property taxes pay for schools, teachers, police firefighters, snow plowing, and trash pick-up, none of which Hull provides you.”
Karen B.: “They [Hull] didn’t want it when it would cost them umpteen thousands to secure/ refurbish it but now that you’ve nearly finished the work they want to reap the benefits!”
Aura B: “Wow, greedy bunch. Those people put their hearts into that restoration and now you’re trying to come in. Disgusting.”
Rick R.: “You’re a beacon in many ways. I’m sorry that even an ounce of energy is diverted from your excellent stewardship of Graves Light. Good vibes coming to you from the Swampscott shore!”
Marie F.: “The present owner has poured his heart, soul and a fortune into bringing this property into pristine condition. Now Hull wants to claim it and tax it. This should be declared a National Monument. This man should be awarded for restoring it.”
Meredith W.: “Keep rowing against this shakedown scam.”
John M.: “So this is the thanks you get for restoring a historic landmark and putting something nice out there in the harbor. What a waste of your time…”
Linda B.: “Hull’s 11th-hour cash grab for permit fees and taxes does not hold water and is a waste of time and money…”
Susan M.: “Boston has fought off illegal taxation before and will do it again!”