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Groups try to protect 'maritime icons' as Ottawa gets out of lighthouse business

HALIFAX - For 35 years, Judy Dauphinee has looked out her window and onto one of the country's most recognizable maritime icons.

With her home resting on a crest of granite and grass at the water's edge, the longtime resident of Peggy's Cove has enjoyed its breathtaking views since moving into the community at age 21.

But Dauphinee, whose family runs the cove's restaurant, is worried about the fate of the light that has guided fishermen and sailors since 1868, and become a symbol of the region's rich seafaring history.

She and the 35 people who live in the tiny shoreline community fear they could lose the beacon and see it replaced by a light pole after Ottawa deemed it and more than 500 other lighthouses surplus in 2010.

They and groups across the country have until Tuesday to file a petition with Parks Canada to have the surplus lighthouses declared heritage properties, which could spare their destruction and transfer them to private interests.

Dauphinee filed hers earlier this month, adding the Peggy's Point light to the more than 250 lighthouses that had been petitioned by last week.

"It's an icon — if it doesn't represent Canada, it certainly represents Nova Scotia," she said from her home, stressing that the loss of the lighthouse would have broad implications.

"It was a working fishing community and that's becoming less and less because of the decline in the fishery. So, I have no idea what could happen to Peggy's Cove if that lighthouse is eliminated too."

Groups are fighting to save the lighthouses, which have become lucrative tourist attractions and emotional touchstones for communities even if they are used less as navigational aids.

The Fisheries Department has been getting out of the lighthouse business for decades, arguing that they are expensive to maintain, at times inaccessible and have been outpaced by technology.

Andrew Anderson of the real property management branch at Fisheries says the department has been transferring lighthouses to private groups for the last 20 years.

"Most people over the age of 12 have a device in their pocket that's GPS enabled, so it's generally accepted that the government doesn't need to own these types of properties and structures in order to effectively deliver a navigational aid service," he said.

"But we're acutely aware that these are structures of tremendous historic importance and sentimental attachment to the communities."

Some groups argue that Canadians have more than a sentimental connection to the lights, which acted as guideposts to mariners in the country's earliest days.

Barry MacDonald, president of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, said his group will file petitions for about 50 of the province's 150 lighthouses. Another 21 have been independently petitioned.

MacDonald said he's optimistic they will be able to save many of the smaller structures, but that larger ones could be lost because of a lack of funding to maintain them.

Groups or individuals would have to take on the cost of caring for a lighthouse if ownership is transferred — an expensive proposition for small, rural communities that are home to many of the structures.

MacDonald says historic lights, like those in Louisbourg, George's Island and Sambro — the oldest operating light in North and South America as it dates back to 1758 — could be allowed to crumble into the ground.

"This is the probably the single most important architectural form we have left in the country," he said.

"These buildings were erected when the country was literally being settled and it was the waterways that people used to settle this country. ... They were integral to the founding of this country."

Bill Rompkey, a former senator who led a committee that recommended lighthouses not be de-staffed, agrees and stresses that they serve as a very real aid to seafarers and pilots who rely on them for weather and directional guidance.

"It's part of the coastal soul, it's part of the coastal spirit," he said. "Some of them are quite striking, especially the older ones, and all of that will be lost if you simply go with a light on a stick."

Groups must also submit a business plan to Fisheries by 2015 for a lighthouse to complete the designation under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act.

That may not be an issue for Peggy's Cove if the province comes through on a bid to acquire the light, which attracts 500,000 visitors a year.

Tourism Minister Percy Paris says he is continuing talks with Ottawa to hammer out a deal to assume ownership of it.

"We want to end up in possession of that light," he said late last week, as they hash out legal, environmental and surveying issues before ownership is transferred.

"It's one of the most photographed places in North America ... so I think that tells you how much we value the Peggy's Cove light."

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