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The Sambro Island lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in North America, is seen on Saturday, May 18, 2013. Sambro, like 970 other lighthouses across Canada, has been declared surplus by the federal Fisheries Department. Community groups and municipalities in eight provinces have come forward with business plans to save 128 of the lighthouses declared surplus by Ottawa.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Community groups and municipalities in eight provinces have come forward with business plans to save only a fraction of the lighthouses that Ottawa says are no longer needed for navigational purposes.

In all, 128 plans were submitted by the June 1 deadline, the federal Fisheries Department confirmed Tuesday.

Five years ago, the department declared 970 of its active and inactive lighthouses surplus, saying they were no longer needed as aids to navigation, mainly because mariners now rely on satellite signals to set their courses.

Federal spokesman Andrew Anderson said despite the deadline, the department is willing to accept more business plans over the next two years, insisting that Ottawa isn't about to start demolishing or selling off surplus lighthouses.

"We are acutely aware that some of them can be of tremendous historic importance," Anderson said in an interview from Ottawa.

"If there's a community interested ... in taking a property and leveraging it for economic development in their community, then we certainly will enable that."

Of the 128 plans submitted, there are: 50 from Ontario, 29 from Nova Scotia, 20 from P.E.I., 12 from Quebec, eight from Newfoundland and Labrador, five from New Brunswick, two from Manitoba and two from British Columbia.

Anderson said the 970 figure that appears on the department's website it includes unusual structures that aren't typically thought of as lighthouses, including simple aluminum poles with lights on top.

A more recent inventory has also revealed that some of the lighthouses on the original list have already been destroyed or fallen to ruin, he said.

Last week, the department faced sharp criticism from three conservation groups that said the process of transferring ownership of surplus lighthouses under the federal Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act was badly flawed.

Barry MacDonald, president of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, said the act won't help some of Canada's oldest and largest lighthouses because these structures are too expensive to maintain without government support.

Anderson, a real property manager with the Fisheries Department, said there are heritage grants available and the department has a $1 million annual budget set aside to help groups preserve lighthouses.

MacDonald said that's not nearly enough.

"It's such a minuscule amount based on the number of lighthouses that they've declared surplus," MacDonald said. "This amount hasn't encouraged enough communities to take on these lighthouses."

As an example, MacDonald pointed to the Sambro Island lighthouse at the southern entrance to Halifax harbour. Built in 1758, it is the oldest operating lighthouse in North America, but it doesn't have a business plan because the local community group doesn't have the means to maintain the big light.

However, Anderson said the Sambro lighthouse will be maintained by the Fisheries Department because it is an active aid to navigation with an operating beacon, which is the case for several of Canada's biggest, oldest lights.

"There's no immediate plans to replace or remove any active aids to navigation," he said. "As long as ... it continues to serve a program function, it will be maintained within our inventory."

As well, Anderson said no lighthouses have been put up for sale on the private market because the department's priority is preserving historic buildings and maintaining public access.

MacDonald said the problem is that the department is committed to maintaining aids to navigation — the light inside the lighthouses — but not the lighthouses themselves.

MacDonald cited the Gannet Rock lighthouse off the southern coast of New Brunswick. The wooden structure remains an active aid to navigation, but the lighthouse itself has become so dilapidated that even the coast guard is wary of landing there.

"That's demolition by neglect," he said. "There's going to be a lot more scrutiny now. When a lighthouse like Sambro starts to go downhill, they can prepare for a backlash of public protest."