North Shore legislator: Don’t sell Plum Island

North Shore legislator: Don’t sell Plum Island

An aerial view of Plum Island. Photo from U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

By Wenhao Ma

The future of Plum Island, a government-owned isle located in Southhold Town, east of Orient Point, is still unclear, but one North Shore legislator wants to ensure it remains in the government’s hands.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) announced on July 7 that the House of Representatives passed another one of his legislative proposals to save Plum Island from being sold to private developers. It was his second piece of legislation passed on this issue since May.

Currently, the federal government owns Plum Island, but a 2008 law required that the government sell the property to the highest bidder.

Zeldin said he think this is the wrong path for the island, which has served as the site for the Plum Island Animal Disease Center for decades.

U.S. Rep Lee Zeldin, far right, listens during his visit to Plum Island. Photo from Zeldin's office.
U.S. Rep Lee Zeldin, far right, listens during his visit to Plum Island. Photo from Zeldin’s office.

“It is time for the United States Senate to act and pass my proposals, so that we can pursue a better direction for Plum Island that would allow for continued research, public access and permanent preservation of the island,” Zeldin said in a statement

Zeldin’s amendment to the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2017 prohibits any of the funding within the appropriations bill to be used to market or sell Plum Island.

Both of Zeldin’s proposals were passed with bipartisan support in the House. The May bill would reverse the 2008 federal law that mandated the public sale of Plum Island by the government to the highest bidder. Now, Zeldin is looking for support from the Senate.

“The Senate also must pass this legislation to ensure that Plum Island is not sold to the highest bidder, but rather is preserved for generations to come,” he said.

The congressman said he would work on providing alternative uses for the island, such as a transfer of ownership to another federal agency, the state or local government, a nonprofit, or a combination for the purpose of education, research and conservation.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website, Plum Island was “the nation’s premier defense against accidental or intentional introduction of transboundary animal diseases,” including foot-and-mouth disease, a viral illness most popular in children under the ages of five.

Homeland Security took over ownership of the island in 2003. Five years later, Congress passed Public Law 110-339, which allowed the General Services Administration to close the disease center and sell the island to the highest bidder in order to fund the building of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas — the replacement for the existing center, due to the age and safety levels of the old facility.

Environment groups from both Long Island and Connecticut have been strongly opposing the law, saying that handing the island to private developers could bring damage to the natural environment and resources.

“The Neck” — A view of Plum Island. Photo by Robert Lorenz
“The Neck” — A view of Plum Island. Photo by Robert Lorenz

“Its location at the convergence of two major estuaries provides an essential habitat for a rich variety of resident and migrating wildlife,” said Kevin McAllister, founder and president of the Sag Harbor-based nonprofit Defend H2O, which protects and restores the environmental quality of groundwater, surface waters, wetlands and beaches on and around Long Island. “Selling the island to developers would open the gates to more water pollution. Giving it away would be a major blow to conservation efforts and be an unconscionable act by the government.”

Jason Garnett, program director of Soundkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Long Island Sound, agreed, saying that Plum Island is an important rest location for migrating birds and waterfowl.

“By preserving ecologically important, open coastal spaces such as Plum Island, we are doing the right thing for future generations of people and the creatures that depend on [the island’s] ecological services of clean air and water,” Garnett said.

Soundkeeper was among many organizations and individuals that filed a lawsuit in federal court on Long Island two weeks ago against the Department of Homeland Security and General Services Administration, that accused the department of violating federal laws and failing to protect endangered and threatened species by intending to sell Plum Island.

John Turner, spokesman for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, is one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

“We think that the government needs to comply with the existing law,” he said.

Zeldin said he is supportive of the local groups’ efforts to prevent the sale of Plum Island.

Besides activist groups, Southold Town also took actions to save the island.

Three years ago, the town passed a zoning law that created two zoning districts on the island, making one a research district and the other a conservation district, where no housing nor any kind of development would be permitted. If the island is sold, a new buyer would have to follow those zoning laws. According to a 2016 Homeland Security report, Alternatives for Final Disposition of Plum Island, the new zoning “sets forth a limited number of allowed uses, restricting the development potential of the property.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell (R) said the town has been working well with local environment groups to prevent an uncertain future for the island.