HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government has promised a tiny coastal community protected by a 70-year-old seawall it will evaluate the cost of restoring the structure, which has been the subject of bureaucratic wrangling for years.

The Natural Resources Department has agreed to send engineers to Gabarus to assess the cost and scope of repairing the seawall after meeting with residents of the 300-year-old fishing village last week, spokesman Dan Davis said.

"The province has been listening to the community's concerns," said Davis, adding the department would deliver its assessment to the federal government.

For resident Heather Hayes, this is a major step forward in the Cape Breton community's quest to repair the seawall, which has provided shelter from the notorious surf and storms of the North Atlantic.

"This is truly the first glimmer of hope or light that we've seen in months," Hayes said.

Residents have been in a four-year battle to find the money to fix the wall. But they have found themselves mired in a tussle between the federal and provincial governments, neither of whom claim responsibility for the 400-metre long structure.

Tim Menk, an organizer of Friends of Gabarus, a group that has been pushing for the seawall's repairs, said it was built by the federal government but rests on provincial land.

Since 1995, when responsibility for harbour operations was transferred to the Fisheries Department from Transport Canada, Fisheries began divesting some assets such as wharfs and breakwaters and no longer subsidized repairs, he said.

The Gabarus wharf was divested in 2001 but the seawall was not because it was not the federal government's to divest, said Raymond Losier, a project engineer for the Fisheries Department in Moncton, N.B.

Still, Fisheries commissioned the Public Works Department to conduct two studies on the wall in 1995 and 1999.

The first was a structural study that recommended two repair scenarios, one costing $30,000 and the other $40,000. The second was a divestiture program report that encompassed both the seawall and the wharf.

A Fisheries spokesman said the department often conducts studies on structures they don't own but surround their property.

"Just because at the time we assessed something that could have an impact on something we clearly own does not imply that we also own (the wall)," said Luke Gaulton.

That said, Losier said in light of the province's recent commitment to assess the repairs, the Fisheries Department would be willing to discuss the future of the seawall.

"We would have no issues sitting down with the various stakeholders ... to try to come up with a solution, regardless of level of government," said Losier.

Hayes said that's good news.

"That's the best thing we could hope for," said Hayes, also a member of Friends of Gabarus.

"We need the three levels of government -- in particular, we need the federal government to take a lead role in this to get it done."

Public Works and Fisheries have asked the Justice Department to determine who owns the seawall, said Darcy Truen, a spokesman for Public Works. He said an answer is expected in the next few months.

But Hayes said that's "a bit of a red herring."

"Of course we're glad to find out who owns the wall," she said. "But (the federal government) has to come on the ground and start doing some studies and repairs."

Mayor John Morgan of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality announced in late January that the municipality is prepared to foot one-third of the estimated $300,000 repair bill, but that's contingent on the provincial and federal governments sharing the rest of the costs.

In some sections, the wood slopes of the seawall twist and lean. It sits about 15 metres from the village's sheltered harbour.

The local fishing industry, road access to the village and several private homes are at risk if the wall fails, residents say.

About 50 residents live in Gabarus year-round, but that number can triple in the summer.