NORTH WILDWOOD — You could call Steve Murray the keeper of the light at the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse.
And while the Fresnel lens that once shined the beacon of this circa 1874 landmark — and required an actual keeper to climb the winding stairs to the top to feed whale oil to the cyclops-like light at the top — has long been retired, Murray and a group of volunteers have kept the place going for more than 30 years.
But come Jan. 1, Murray and the other Friends of Hereford Inlet Lighthouse may be out of a job.
North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello accuses the group of a multitude of lapses and says the city will take over the edifice. He offered to let Murray's group continue organizing fund-raising and tours. It's an offer Murray says is unacceptable to him and other volunteers, and they likely will step away. The lighthouse, Rosenello says, will open to visitors as scheduled.
The friends group, in turn, has mounted a social media campaign to foil the mayor.
The lighthouse, with an electric beacon atop it, is still a navigation aid. But when it was saved from demolition in 1986 by a historical group and moved landward about 100 feet from where it sat, on a point where the Hereford Inlet meets the Atlantic Ocean, there was nothing much around it except a sandy lot.
Murray, 63, superintendent of parks and recreation for North Wildwood at the time, spent off-hours creating a garden so magnificent around the unusual "house lighthouse" that it has won numerous horticultural awards, including one from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
With various events created and managed by Murray and the volunteers over the years, the site has become a popular tourist destination, drawing 40,000 visitors a year.
The lighthouse was built in the Eastlake, stick-style popular at the time for homes — but not necessarily for lighthouses — during the Victorian era. At only 57 feet tall also, it is unlike most other navigational beacons that line New Jersey's 127-mile coastline, such as the Cape May Lighthouse to the south and Absecon Lighthouse to the north. Designed by Paul J. Pels, better known as the main architect of the Library of Congress in Washington, Hereford resembles five historic West Coast lighthouses designed by him around the same time.
"This is a sacred place to me. … It's been a true labor of love," said Murray, who retired from his city job six years ago and has been volunteering full-time to maintain the lighthouse ever since.
The state owns the lighthouse and the one-acre waterfront property surrounding it and leases it to the city. After allowing the group headed by Murray to manage the lighthouse on a volunteer basis since 2011, the city in October rescinded its agreement.
Rosenello said Tuesday he has been attempting for more than a year to work cooperatively and offered the group a new agreement.
"But instead of working with us, they rejected our offer," he said.
Rosenello has cited eight areas of "negligent disregard" on the part of Murray and the friends, which he said led to the decision to alter the management agreement, including issues with communication, abusive treatment of city employees, inconsistent public access to the grounds, and misfiling of monthly and annual reports and insurance certificates.
Murray calls the takeover by the city a "political move" that will allow Rosenello to control the property — down to the brochures. Murray says he has always filed the proper documentation and tried to work cooperatively. He admits he "went ballistic" on one occasion when a city worker parked a heavy truck atop commemorative brick pavers sold in a fundraiser.
Rosenello says the takeover is not political but has to do with "liabilities" created by the friends group, including failure to file paperwork to "close out" a state Department of Transportation grant in 2015, which cost the city $17,000 in lost funding.
Murray said the friends said no to the proffered new agreement because it was too restrictive and the group would no longer be able to oversee restoration and maintenance of the lighthouse and garden.
"New people, with no experience or knowledge of the history of the building or its restoration background, would be running the lighthouse," Murray said.
The friends group has mounted a campaign to maintain control of the lighthouse, posting about it on social media and sending letters to 600 Friends of Hereford Inlet Lighthouse members asking them to express their dismay to Rosenello.
Among those dissenting from the city's decision is Nancy Patterson Tidy, keeper and president of the East Point Lighthouse in Heislerville, Cumberland County, who called the proposed changes to Hereford's management "alarming."
"Hereford Inlet Lighthouse is the best example of how to do it right that I've ever seen," said Tidy, who calls Murray a mentor for helping her navigate through the recent renovation of East Point.
"The New Jersey lighthouse community will feel this great loss. I'm heartbroken and angry," Tidy said.