PENSACOLA — For the past year, 177 spiraling wrought-iron steps have separated enthusiasts from the best view of the Pensacola Bay area.
The Pensacola lighthouse at Pensacola Naval Air Station has been closed to public tours because of safety and liability concerns by its owner, the U.S. Coast Guard.
Since May, visitors have been blocked from climbing to the top of the lighthouse, a cornerstone of local historic landmarks, to steal a glimpse of the area's nautical past.
After months of negotiating, however, the tower soon will open again to public tours.
"I think we are close to an agreement being finalized with the Pensacola Lighthouse Association," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Edwin Stanton, deputy sector commander of Sector Mobile, which includes Pensacola. "They are going to commence tours maybe as early as May 1."
The Lighthouse Association is eager to enlist volunteers and continue tours.
"It's a great relief and very exciting," said Dianne Levi, the founder of the association and a member of the Florida Lighthouse Association.
Levi said the association is in the final stages of getting liability insurance and will soon be ready to open the tower for tours.
Initially, the tours will be available for four hours on Saturday. The association will charge $5 for adults and $3 for children ages 7 to 11. Children younger than 7 will not be allowed.
Levi said now is the time to reopen the lighthouse because its 150th anniversary is Jan. 1.
For many, the 150-foot lighthouse — the tallest in Florida — is a symbol of safety and hope. It also offers the perfect view of the area. "It's breathtaking to see everything we know and love from that vantage point," said Wanda Forrester, a media specialist at Ferry Pass Elementary School who is also a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
For years, Forrester used the lighthouse as an education tool. She has even decorated the school's media center with various lighthouses. Each year, as part of an accelerated reader program, 10 students are rewarded with a visit to the lighthouse. Last year, the students went but were only able to tour the keeper's quarters.
"I've got a whole bunch of students who hope to climb the tower when May rolls around," Forrester said.
While public tours should resume soon, the eventual fate of who oversees the lighthouse still hasn't been determined.
The Coast Guard owns the 43.5-acre parcel that includes the lighthouse and several structures, but the Navy leases the keeper's quarters and maintains the grounds.
Pamela Boudreaux, cultural resource manager at NAS, says the Navy does not intend to renew its lease when it expires next year.
With the contract ending, Coast Guard officials have been speaking to officials at the Gulf Islands National Seashore about transferring control of the lighthouse and the keeper's quarters.
"The end result is that the Coast Guard will no longer maintain the tower," Stanton said. "We'll still operate the light."
National Seashore superintendent Jerry Eubanks is optimistic that National Seashore, which is part of the National Park Service, could take control of the structures. "It has been in the legislation when the park was established to include the lighthouse (in the park service)," he said.
According to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act signed in 2000, whoever is entrusted with the lighthouse must make the station available for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes for the public at reasonable times and under reasonable conditions.
Richard Callaway, president of the lighthouse, said he wouldn't mind seeing the Park Service control the lighthouse, as long as it is opened to the public.