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Southold weighs zone change for Plum Island

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

As Southold prepares for the possibility that the federal government will shutter its research lab and sell Plum Island, the town is looking to pass zoning to preserve the roughly 850-acre island as mostly untouched natural land.

Environmental groups praised the town's proposal, which would set aside 175 acres for research and a ferry terminal, but keep the rest as a conservation district. They asked this week that an additional 37 acres be added to the proposed conservation district.

Chantal Collier, director of the Long Island Sound Program for The Nature Conservancy, described it as "one of the largest continuous blocks of undeveloped coastal land in Long Island Sound."

She added that it is home to a diverse array of native plants and wildlife, including threatened birds such as the piping plover and roseate tern.

President Barack Obama's budget released last month included $714 million to complete an animal disease testing facility in Kansas. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which does similar work, was "inadequate."

New York's congressional delegation opposes shuttering the facility, which employs 100 scientists and 300 support personnel. But conservationists see it as an opportunity to preserve the island, which is a significant nesting place for migratory birds, off Long Island's North Fork.

Plum Island should "continue to function as the site for a world-class research facility and a wildlife refuge of national significance," said John Turner, spokesman for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said the proposed zoning would keep much of the island as is. The town holds out hope that if the federal government shutters its research, a private company or university would set up research there to keep high-paying jobs in the area.

He described Plum Island as a "stunning ecosystem."

Russell said the town would consider the request to add 37 acres to conservation zoning, but noted any development would still have to go through a public approval process. He said it was important to present a unified vision to the federal government before the land is sold.

The proposed zoning will be considered in June for approval.

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