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Turner: Act now to restrict development on Plum Island

Visitors gaze at the shoreline on Plum Island.

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

About a mile east of the bony-fingered tip of Long Island's North Fork lies Plum Island, an 843-acre island owned by the federal government. If it's known at all it is likely due to Nelson DeMille's best-selling thriller of the same name, or because of the National Animal Disease Center that sits on the western corner of the island. For those who take the Orient-to-New London ferry, there's also the familiarity of the iconic Plum Island Lighthouse, sitting stolidly on a bluff overlooking Plum Gut, a fast-moving channel along the island's western edge.

But many features of Plum Island remain unknown, as it is not open to the public. There are the remains of Fort Terry, a remnant of the Spanish-American War, once equipped with a toy gauge railroad for moving ammunition as needed, the rusting tracks of which are still evident in various places. Or the seal haul-out site, the largest in southern New England, consisting of several hundred harbor and gray seals that overwinter along the island's eastern tip, resting like fat kielbasa on truck-sized rocks dropped here by the last glacier.

Nor have people strolled the desolate, pebble-strewn beaches or roamed among the salt-spray stunted forests and thickets of beach plum shrubs that gave rise to the island's name.

The sad fact is that if Congress has its way, Long Islanders will never experience the many wonderful aspects of this publicly owned island. Congress has mandated the General Services Administration to sell the island to a private buyer. This remarkable public asset, rivaling in quality any park or refuge in the tri-state area, risks being lost to the public forever.

In 2008, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed a law stating that if the secretary of Homeland Security finds the animal disease center has outlived its usefulness, Plum Island must be sold -- with proceeds used to help offset the cost of a new $1.3 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas. That finding was made, and President Barack Obama included money to complete the Kansas facility in his budget proposal last month.

But due to lab cleanup costs and proposed zoning by the Town of Southold that would prevent extensive and lucrative development -- a proposal that was broadly supported at a town board hearing on Tuesday -- it is very unlikely Congress would see any financial gain from selling the island. The major premise for selling it is undercut.

Not only does Congress' action to dispose of Plum Island make no fiscal sense, it's contradictory to a long-standing tradition relating to surplus federal property. Typically, Congress stays out of such cases and GSA reaches out to other federal agencies to determine if they have an interest in the property. Often they do, as when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service expressed its interest in four properties in the region that subsequently became national wildlife refuges, including the well-known Block Island National Wildlife Refuge.

New York's senators and congressional representatives still have time to preserve Plum Island. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) has recently stated his commitment to sponsor legislation to decouple the fate of Plum Island from the Kansas facility by halting the sale of the island. He'll need the assistance and support of his congressional colleagues from both political parties.

If they succeed, the next step is to protect the island's resources by dedicating its undeveloped parts as the Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge and open it to appropriate public use. If Congress acts with vision and foresight, the island can be held in the public trust, forever to be enjoyed by all, be they hikers, historic fort or lighthouse enthusiasts, seal admirers, observers of sea shells, bird-watchers, pickers of beach plums, seekers of solitude or anyone who loves beautiful seascapes.

John L. Turner is a spokesman for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, a consortium of 56 conservation-minded individuals and conservation, environmental, civic and business groups.