On July 16, Representative Tim Bishop introduced a bill that would prevent further development on Plum Island by decoupling its sale from the construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas.
Mr. Bishop announced his “Save, Don’t Sell, Plum Island” legislation at a press conference in Orient, the 843-acre, federally owned island in the background. The legislation, which has the backing of the Long Island and Connecticut Congressional delegations, would eliminate the current legal requirement that the island be sold at public auction. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
Congress passed legislation in 2008 mandating the island’s sale, the proceeds intending to offset the cost of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility’s construction. Mr. Bishop, arguing for continuation of the island’s use as an animal disease research facility and wildlife conservation area, said that such a sale makes no sense.
The Kansas facility, Mr. Bishop told The Star, was originally slated to cost approximately $300 million. “The way the project was sold to Congress by the Bush administration was it would be a fully funded operation, that is to say, the sale of Plum Island would fully fund construction. As of this moment, it is now projected to cost north of $1 billion. There is absolutely no chance that Plum Island is going to be sold for anything approaching that money.”
From a practical standpoint, he said, “the idea that you would have to sell Plum Island is off the table. You would need several Plum Islands. But from a more important point of view, a preservation-of-natural-habitat point of view, selling Plum Island would be a bad idea.”
The federal General Services Administration released a Final Environmental Impact Statement on the sale in June, citing the potential for as many as 500 houses that could be built on the island. The G.S.A. continues to prepare for a public auction of the island. Along with Mr. Bishop, Southold Town officials and environmental advocates including the Group for the East End, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the Sierra Club’s Long Island Group, the Nature Conservancy, the South Shore Audubon Society, Save the Sound, and the North Shore Land Alliance have united to oppose the sale.
The Southold Town Board has endorsed an “adaptive reuse” plan for the island that would preclude any future development. Under the plan, the 100-plus acres currently devoted to research would be zoned for academic and other forms of research, and approximately two-thirds of the island, some 700 acres, would be preserved for plant and wildlife conservation.
“Scott Russell and his board should be commended for what they are doing,” Mr. Bishop said, referring to the Southold Town supervisor.
Plum Island has a long history as both a research and military facility. From the time of the Spanish-American War, it was used for the defense of Long Island Sound. Late in the 19th century, an investor sought to develop a summer resort on the island, but the federal War Department bought 150 acres at the island’s east end in 1897 and the remaining territory four years later.
In 1954, 25 years after the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States but closely following outbreaks in Mexico and Canada, the Army transferred the property to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Concurrently, construction of a laboratory building was taking place on the island.
Mr. Bishop conceded that his bill is “a tough sell, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.” He complained about the tendency of many of his colleagues “to put economic issues at the forefront over and above environmental issues,” and “to put preservation of the environment as antithetical to economic growth. That is a false choice,” he said, citing the South Fork’s environment and natural resources as its primary allure.
“I believe most people in East Hampton care about preservation of open space, of habitat, of our natural resources,” Mr. Bishop told The Star. “The people of East Hampton should care about the preservation of Plum Island in the same way people of Southold care about preservation of the Napeague strip.”