Plum Island’s future uncertain as transition begins

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell and Louise Harrison of Save the Sound at Tuesday's Plum Island forum. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

Those working towards preserving Plum Island’s unused, natural acreage from development see both uncertainty and hope in their goal as a new presidential era begins. 

The island is currently set to be sold by the federal government to the highest bidder, as operations from the Plum Island Animal Disease center will move to a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas expected to open in 2022.

East End residents on Tuesday night viewed a 10-minute documentary and heard from a panel of local officials and members of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition on the efforts to stop the sale and ecological importance of the island and the diverse wildlife that inhabits it. 

“In terms of where we are in the process, you can look at it like a baseball game,” said Aaron Virgin, vice president of Group for the East End, on the overall efforts of the now 70-member coalition during the panel. “We could be in the fourth inning, we could be in the sixth inning, but it’s definitely not the ninth inning. We could go into some extra innings. Who knows? With a new administration coming in, there’s even more uncertainty.”

With a new administration and Congress, time is running out for the U.S. Senate to vote on a bill that would stop the federal government’s proposed sale of the island. The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in May.

Now the work must continue on the Senate side, said Mark Woolley, Mr. Zeldin’s district director.

“The idea of the new administration is why bipartisan cooperation between Republicans and Democrats, the bicameral support from the Senate and the House is so important because that’s where we’ll need to make legislation move,” said Leah Schmalz, program director for Save the Sound.

Many East End residents who asked questions after the panel wondered about the status of the legislation in the Senate and whether there was support for it. The bill is not currently scheduled for a vote.

Save the Sound sent out a flurry of emails Tuesday calling for donations to be used toward the preservation of Plum Island.

“In this new uncertain climate, one thing is clear — you can no longer rely on the federal government to preserve Plum Island. It’s up to you,” read one email urging people to make a gift towards their goal. It was part of a push for donations on Giving Tuesday, a day when people are encouraged to be charitable.

Save the Sound is more worried about Plum Island’s fate because “high-powered developers want to buy it,” according to the message sent out Tuesday. The message alluded to, but did not name, President-elect Donald Trump, whose representatives in 2013 spoke with Southold Town and federal officials about the possibility of purchasing the 840-acre island and building a golf course there.

At the time of those development discussions Southold Town had already been discussing measures it could take and soon passed a law that established two new zoning districts on the island — a research district that includes the existing lab and surrounding 160 acres and a conservation district that does not allow development on a remaining 600 untouched acres.

Mr. Russell said the town recognized that the zoning is the first line of defense and is necessary for interest in preserving the island.

“We’re confident in our zoning authority, but we can’t count on that,” Mr. Russell said. “The town could eventually find itself in expensive litigation by a party who’s looking to overturn that zoning.”

Caption: Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell and Louise Harrison of Save the Sound at Tuesday’s Plum Island forum. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

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