Local NewsGraves Light lighthouse tax trial against Hull spotlights Graves...

Graves Light lighthouse tax trial against Hull spotlights Graves Ledge history

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Land Court, at least in the case of Graves Light lighthouse, is a lot like a history lesson.

Graves Ledge, the land at issue where the lighthouse sits perched at the entrance of Boston Harbor, was named in 1653 after Thomas Graves, an admiral and trader who brought early settlers from England.

The lighthouse was finished in 1905, and, at 118 feet, is the tallest lighthouse in the harbor warning boats away from the shallow ledge dipping under the water.

The lighthouse ushered many ships in effectively but saw its share of shipwrecks, including the “Zoo Wreck” in 1938 when a vessel of exotic animals split across the rocks, convincing residents on the shore that a washed-up python was a mythical sea serpent.

In the chapters of the lighthouse’s tenure, keepers captured German spies entering the harbor during World War II and hosted a shoot for the 1948 film “Portrait of Jennie,” which briefly featured future-First Lady Nancy Reagan.

The current owners give talks on the storied history of the Graves every now and again historical organizations or yacht clubs’ events. They brought those tales to a more unusual audience from the witness stand on Tuesday.

Though the court’s historical points of interest have much more to do with map making, decrees and deeds back to the 1600’s — whether an x-marking delineates a rock or an island or how strictly a 17th century governor meant his wording — than sea serpents or Nazis.

The matter put before the Land Court on Tuesday and Wednesday concerns whether Graves Ledge is part of the town of Hull.

Dave and Lynn Waller bought Graves Light for a record-setting $933,888 after a six-week long government auction in 2013 — receiving a deed that noted the property was ‘not located within the corporate limits of any municipality.’

By the time of auction, the lighthouse had been abandoned by its last keeper for more than 40 years.

“It was offered up to all the surrounding towns for free and many nonprofits for free,” said Dave Waller. “And nobody touched it. So it was like pretty much the last chance for this place.”

After years of renovations, the Wallers were caught off guard by their first tax bill for $3,461 from the town of Hull in 2019.

According to the Wallers pre-trial brief, Hull had not collected any taxes on the ledge since its founding in 1644, and the map maintained by Hull’s Assessor’s Office had only been changed in late 2018 to include the property within the town.

The Wallers pushed back against the city’s jurisdiction over the lighthouse and, three years later, the dispute made its way to Land Court.

Judge Diane Rubin heard the case Tuesday and Wednesday before the defense asked for a suspension of the trial. The trial is scheduled to resume July 25.

It’s fitting in a way that the Wallers legal battle hinges on the sort of historical documentation of the Graves’ that they’ve spent nearly a decade collecting.

With books, pictures, paintings, relics and meticulously hand-made little plaques, the Wallers have nearly assembled the lighthouse into a small monument to its past — just waiting to install a traditionally used Fresnel lens to top it off by the end of the summer.

More than anything else about the lighthouse, Dave said he’s become fascinated by the people who’ve been a part of the lighthouse’s history.

“If you think about it, we’re all just keepers for this part of the lighthouse’s life,” Dave said. “The lighthouse keeps on going without us, but we were at least able to give it a fresh start after 100 years of wear and tear. And so that will outlive us.

“We’re not doing it for us, we’re doing it—” Dave took a seemingly-flummoxed pause. “I can’t explain why we’re doing it.”

The Wallers seem to have a strikingly unbridled ‘Why not?’ attitude — with the means to put millions of dollars and years of intensive labor into an impassioned whim.

When he first heard about the auction, Dave said, he loaded onto the boat with the bidders out of curiosity, with no real intentions.

“I was like, ‘Let’s just go check it out.’ Like I wasn’t going to buy a lighthouse,” he recounted, scoffing at the words. “‘A free trip? Sure.’ And when I got to the top and opened those doors, I felt just like, like, ‘What? Seriously?’”

“He called me while I was up at the family cottage and said, ‘Hey hun, would it be okay if I bought a lighthouse?’” Lynn Waller said, mimicking his voice and laughing. “And I just said, ‘Sure.’”

Since then, the Wallers said, the lighthouse has taken over their lives.

“You can’t build this with bags of money,” Dave said. With constraints like miles of ocean, nowhere to dock a boat and the 40-foot ladder in, he noted, the renovation process took personal care and extensive trial and error.

Lynn pointed down to the tiny tiles on the first floor as she entered the first room, saying it took days painstakingly snapping the tiles on the floor to get the effect.

“This lighthouse, Martha Stewart made me do it,” she said in reference to the pattern choice, gesturing over to her husband.

Beyond the Wallers, the lighthouse has been fashioned by a large community, from family to Northeastern craftspeople to collectors interested in the project. Not long ago, Dave said, a person over Facebook had insisted on “returning” an old keeper’s hand-made checkers board.

While they feel optimistic about the trial outcome, with testimony and documents lined up, Dave said paying the taxes won’t be an issue if that’s what the court decides.

“The taxes are nothing compared to the court costs,” said Dave. “It’s more about the principle of, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t think I want to get bullied like that.’”

After the court case is over and the Fresnel lens is installed — the last big piece of the renovations — Dave said he’s not sure how to adapt to the lighthouse’s quieter future.

“It kind of makes you live forever, if you can do something beyond your lifetime,” Dave said. “Eventually, they won’t know who you are. But who cares?”

  • The Town of Hull has issued a tax bill to...

    Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch

    The Town of Hull has issued a tax bill to the keepers of Graves Light lighthouse, whose owners say they purchased it at auction with a deed stating it wasn't a part of any municipality. (Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch)

  • Graves Light lighthouse keepers Dave and Lynn Waller are contesting...

    Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch

    Graves Light lighthouse keepers Dave and Lynn Waller are contesting the Town of Hull's taxing authority over the property. (Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch)

  • The Town of Hull has issued a tax bill to...

    Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch

    The Town of Hull has issued a tax bill to the keepers of Graves Light lighthouse, whose owners say they purchased it at auction with a deed stating it wasn't a part of any municipality. (Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch)

  • The Town of Hull has issued a tax bill to...

    Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch

    The Town of Hull has issued a tax bill to the keepers of Graves Light lighthouse, whose owners say they purchased it at auction with a deed stating it wasn't a part of any municipality. (Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch)

  • The Town of Hull has laid tax claims on the...

    Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch

    The Town of Hull has laid tax claims on the Graves Light lighthouse property, but its current lightkeepers are fighting back. (Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch)

  • The Town of Hull has laid tax claims on the...

    Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch

    The Town of Hull has laid tax claims on the Graves Light lighthouse property, but its current lightkeepers are fighting back. (Boston Herald photo by Grace Zokovitch)

  • The full Harvest moon rises over Boston Harbor's Graves Light...

    Boston Herald staff photo by Mark Garfinkel

    The full Harvest moon rises over Boston Harbor's Graves Light on Sept. 16, 2016. The Town of Hull has laid tax claims on the lighthouse property, but its current lightkeepers are fighting back. (Boston Herald staff photo by Mark Garfinkel)

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