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The politics of saving Plum Island

Environmentalists want the wildlife on Plus Island protected.

Environmentalists want the wildlife on Plus Island protected. The lighthouse is seen here in 2005. Credit: AP / Bill Davis

Plum Island is like the turn of a kaleidoscope. At one rotation, a viewer sees Long Island’s largest seal colony and a favorite destination of fishing boats. At the next turn, it becomes a prize sought by developers of golf courses and condos.

To many, though, Plum Island is a vision of Washington’s partisanship cemented into place.

The 3-mile, relatively untouched haven of trees and sandy beaches in Long Island Sound is off-limits to the public and has been owned by the federal government since 1826, when it was a military installation called Fort Terry. Since the 1950s, about 20 percent of Plum Island has served as an animal disease center researching everything from swine flu to foot-and-mouth disease to other livestock ailments.

Today, as the federal government moves to relocate the research laboratory to Kansas, this strip of land 1.5 miles off the tip of Orient Point is, to federal budget hawks, a potential $33 million bonanza. As preservationists try to block Plum Island’s sale to a private developer, they’ve run straight into the kaleidoscopic chamber of mirrors known as an election year.

Even though leaders on both sides of the aisle agree that this green jewel should be preserved, the real issue is who would get credit for doing so. This will come as a complete shock to no one.

But it’s a shame to have what is mostly agreement behind the scenes — to preserve this land — result in paralysis. Plum Island is an extraordinary treasure that should remain pristine.

The island’s future is playing out in the context of the 1st Congressional District, which encompasses both Long Island forks westward to Brookhaven and Smithtown. Republican freshman Rep. Lee Zeldin tried to rescind the part of the 2008 federal legislation that initiated the sale of the land. The proceeds are supposed to help fund the $1.25 billion Kansas replacement facility, scheduled for completion by the end of 2022.

Zeldin’s bill is similar to a Senate measure sponsored by Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal; Plum Island is less than seven miles south of Niantic, Connecticut.

In addition, Zeldin sponsored a successful amendment to the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2017 that bars the use of federal funds to market or sell the property. This passed just last week. Even as it was moving in the House, real estate agents were scheduling boat trips for potential Plum Island investors.

Zeldin’s office said he’s reaching out to Senate Republicans to gauge their support.

There are two schools of thought about why Zeldin’s bill isn’t moving in the Senate. One is influence from House Speaker Paul Ryan, a budget hawk, who doesn’t want to give up the potential cash. The second is that Senate Democrats said privately they would push the House bill in their chamber. There’s evidence they’re still considering that.

Not to take sides here, but Democrats see 2016 as an opportunity to wrest the 1st CD seat from Zeldin. History shows the power of incumbency grows after a first term. And New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, especially, has been a vocal supporter of Zeldin’s November opponent, Democrat and former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. If Blumenthal’s bill were to pass in the Senate, Zeldin might look too good.

Environmental advocates from New York and Connecticut were in Washington Thursday to lobby in part about Plum Island. Let’s hope they can twist the kaleidoscope to a pattern that produces a win for all of us who live near Long Island Sound.

Anne Michaud is interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the intent of Zeldin’s House bill to permanently ban the sale of Plum Island.


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