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Zoning plan would keep much of Plum Island open space

Visitors gaze at the shoreline on Plum Island.

Visitors gaze at the shoreline on Plum Island. (Oct. 6, 2010) Credit: Ed Betz

Fears on the East End that Plum Island would be covered with hundreds of McMansions or condos after its sale by the federal government would be quashed by Southold Town's proposed first zoning for the island.

The 840-acre island off Orient Point currently has no zoning because of its federal ownership. The town proposal would limit the use of 175 acres on the west end, where the Plum Island Animal Disease Center is located, to research, while the rest of the land would be preserved as open space.

The General Services Administration has been charged by Congress with selling the island to the highest bidder with no restrictions on its use as part of the plan to close the Plum Island lab and shift research to a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility yet unbuilt in Kansas.

But since the federal government has no say over zoning, the town proposes to eliminate retail, manufacturing or housing other than on the western end of the island in conjunction with a research facility.

"The intent of the town is to see Plum Island stay Plum Island -- stay a research facility of global import" with most of the island remaining open space, Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said.

He said a new research operation could use the existing lab buildings, expand them or demolish them for new construction. "We're not trying to freeze it in time," Russell said.

Other than buildings and fortifications from historic Fort Terry on the east end, Russell said, "the undeveloped part of the island serves as a de facto preserve now anyway. It's in a fairly pristine state. We'd like to see that stay and continue to serve as a limited-access preserve."

The Fort Terry structures and 1869 lighthouse on the west end would be protected. "We would very much like to see them placed in the hands of a group that has the expertise to maintain the historic integrity," Russell said.

He hopes to have the zoning approved by the town board by the end of the summer following the scheduling of a public hearing.

GSA spokesman Patrick Sclafani said, "We're mandated to do a public sale of the island. We always anticipated zoning to be completed in advance of the sale, but we really don't influence how the zoning occurs." He said the agency would not comment on how the zoning might diminish the pool of potential buyers.

The GSA is expected to release soon a final environmental impact statement on the sale. The draft created a stir by stating high-density development of up to 750 homes was possible.

Reaction to the proposed zoning from East End officials and environmentalists was highly positive.

"Southold Town's vision for Plum Island, should it be sold, would be a tremendous asset to our community by providing local jobs at education and research facilities while preserving 600 acres for wildlife habitat and passive recreation," Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said in a statement. "This zoning plan would also dramatically reduce the price Plum Island could command. Congress was told that selling the island would offset the cost of building a new facility, which is now approaching $1 billion. That has now been proven inaccurate."

Bishop said the zoning would strengthen his efforts to keep the Plum Island lab open.

North Fork Environmental Council president Bill Toedter said the town's plan is sound and realistic because "the cost of returning the entire island to a natural state is not within the purview of any town, county or the state at this point."

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