Environmental concerns not addressed in zoning

The latest Plum Island zoning draft does not include suggestions made by environmental groups, but town officials said the document addresses those issues and additional guidelines were not needed.

While supporting the direction the town’s taking, representatives from eight environmental organizations echoed the same two concerns during a Town Board hearing last month. The groups called for eliminating the possibility of installing solar energy panels in the proposed conservation district, and increasing the total acreage of that zone.

Officials believe the current wording, which only permits the panels as an accessory use, will achieve the town’s preservation goal and provide flexibility to explore the use of alternative energy on the island should zoning move forward.

The 840-acre island is federally owned and is not currently subject to local planning regulations. The town’s efforts to create new zoning categories for the island were prompted by the Department of Homeland Security’s plans to replace the facility off the tip of Orient Point with a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. If that project progresses, the Plum Island lab would be closed and the property sold to a private investor.

The zoning is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing the construction of condominiums, “McMansions” or even a casino if the island is sold. The pending zoning would create three separate zones reflecting current uses as a research center with its own harbor and considerable open space.

The latest draft allows the construction of solar collectors on 120 acres within the proposed conservation district. The environment organizations believe this type of construction works against preservation and suggested either eliminating or reducing the acreage on which solar generators would be permitted in order to minimize the impact on vegetation and wildlife.

Since any site plan for the island, including those with solar panels, would be subject to approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals, the town believes there is no need to an outright ban, Supervisor Scott Russell said.

The groups also called for increasing the acreage of the proposed conservation district and expanding that district by 37 acres to include land surrounding the Plum Island Lighthouse and acreage northeast of the existing lab.

Planning Department director Heather Lanza said much of that area would be protected by the current town code. Mr. Russell said the zoning is intended to protect both the ecosystem and the research facility, a large source of local employment.

To avoid the need for lot area variances in the future, officials included changes to the minimum lot area for the conservation and research districts. The revised proposal reduces the minimum lot area for the research district from 150 acres to 125 acres and trims the minimum lot area for the conservation district from 500 acres to 350 acres.

The Town Board is expected Tuesday to set a date for the next public hearing on the zoning.

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