Officials, groups mull Plum Island's future

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is part

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is part of the Department of Homeland Security. (Feb. 16, 2004). (Credit: AP)

Environmental groups from both sides of Long Island Sound joined local and federal officials this week to talk about the future of Plum Island, but all were hard-pressed to say with certainty what that will be.

The meeting Monday night in Orient at Poquatuck Hall was called because Southold will hold a public hearing next week on plans to adopt its first zoning for Plum Island, and because efforts to sell it to a private owner are ongoing.

What became clear from the questions and comments at the two-hour meeting was everyone in the room wanted Plum Island to stay pretty much the way it is -- a research facility that has studied dangerous and contagious plant and animal diseases for the past half-century.

The federal government wants to shut the Plum Island laboratories and build a more up-to-date, 574,000-square-foot complex in Kansas, a $1.3 billion project strongly supported by politicians in that state and opposed by Long Island officials.

There is more than $700 million in President Barack Obama's proposed budget for next year to build Plum Island's replacement in Manhattan, Kan., the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility near the campus of Kansas State University.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) told meeting attendees that it's unclear if the money will stay in the budget.

When Congress approved the new facility -- the Kansas site was selected after a three-year search -- it mandated that its cost be offset by the sale of Plum Island, Bishop noted.

The zoning proposed by Southold Town would strictly limit what could be built there.

"Zoning never existed there," said Southold Supervisor Scott Russell.

The town's proposed zoning keeps the current lab complex and its surrounding area as a research facility -- it takes up about 20 percent of the 840-acre island -- and rezones the rest as an environmentally sensitive reserve where new construction would be sharply restricted, allowing only educational structures and accessory structures such as a dormitory or solar power facility.

No construction could take place within 300 feet of the water in either area.

But, perhaps the most important part of the zoning plan is the town's marina designation for 8 acres on the mainland in Orient owned by the federal government and now used by the ferries serving Plum Island. Russell said use of that property would be severely limited as well.

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