Plum Island coalition campaigns for a national monument

Southold Town Council plans to ask planning staff to write a letter of support to the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, which is campaigning to make Plum Island a national monument.

The Department of Homeland Security will complete the closure of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in 2028 at a cost of $150 million. At a town hall meeting on Tuesday, representatives from the East End Group and Save the Sound argued for the preservation of the 840-acre island, citing its ecological, cultural and historical significance.

“Our president is going to want to know that our governor supports this. No president will declare a national monument in a state unless that state supports it. We know that no New York governor will make that kind of statement without addressing the city. There you are,” said Louise Harrison, New York National Zones Coordinator at Save the Sound.

The coalition has secured a potential donor, an unnamed 94-year-old woman, who is willing to fund the management of the island if the acreage is retained. Lawmakers in Connecticut and New York are backing the coalition, representatives said, and the coalition is creating a new Friends of Plum Island nonprofit.

A 2020 report from the Preserve Plum Island Coalition details a vision for a 640-acre reserve, 125-acre research complex, and small museum showcasing the island’s heritage and history.

New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) offered to write a letter of support and circulate it among fellow lawmakers and the governor’s office after the coalition pleaded for support at an environmental roundtable last week.

According to Harrison, federal agencies will have 30 days to express interest in buying Plum Island. If no agency expresses interest, the island will be available at the state, county, and then city level for 30 days each. An agency expressing interest would prolong the process.

DHS is responsible for any contamination created on the island by law, according to Harrison. “They should be required to continue to take on this responsibility in the future,” she said.

DHS is seeking public comment on the Plum Island closure for a draft environmental assessment, which will be available for public review this summer. Anyone interested in submitting comments can email [email protected] before March 11.

The Preserve Plum Island Coalition has been in contact with the US Department of the Interior, and members have met with the White House Council on Environmental Quality to advocate for the preservation of the island.

The coalition wants Plum Island to be preserved through the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to declare a national monument. Ms Harrison said the donor “would like to get this sorted out soon”. She said New York State has not expressed a direct interest in owning Plum Island, but the state commissioners of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Department of Environmental Conservation recently sent a letter saying they would like to help preserve the site.

The federal government put Plum Island up for sale in 2008, much to the chagrin of local lawmakers, putting the land at risk of development. DHS intends to build and operate a new National Biological and Agricultural Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas. Plum Island was removed from auction in 2020, although the site is still for sale to government agencies.

Southold Town adopted local zoning for the federally owned Plum Island in 2013, with one area allocated for research and the other defined as a conservation district which prohibits development on 600 acres. The Plum Island ferry dock has also been zoned MIII, a brand new zoning district dedicating this facility to access to and from Plum Island, Ms Harrison said. Under the town of Southold code, Marine III licenses the ferry terminals for ferry service to and from Plum Island only, with certain incidental uses. The Suffolk Times previously reported that the rezoning was part of efforts to preserve the island.

New York’s Natural Heritage Program discovered at least five significant natural ecological communities on Plum Island in 2015, Harrison said, including 97 acres of freshwater wetlands. Save the Sound sponsored further underwater investigation of the island, including a dive in August. The results of the dive will be presented on March 31.

There are 228 species of birds that have been sighted on the island, which is also the largest resting place, or stranding area, for seals in New York, Ms Harrison said. Eight-five percent of the site is underdeveloped, according to Robert DeLuca, president of Group for the East End.

Plum Island Lighthouse, built in 1869, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Preserve Plum Island Coalition hopes the building will be restored, according to Harrison. Fort Terry was established on the island in 1897 as part of the coastal fortifications related to the Spanish–American War, and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the president to establish national monuments on sites featuring “historic monuments, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historical or scientific interest,” according to the National Park Service website. .

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