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Addressing future of Plum Island, zoning change discussed for Orient ferry terminal

As the effort to prevent Plum Island from being auctioned off continues, preservation advocates are turning their attention to the 10-acre federally owned ferry property in Orient. 

“We’re worried,” Louise Harrison, the New York natural areas coordinator for Save the Sound, told Town Board members at a work session last Tuesday. “It’s how you get to Plum Island and back.”

According to Supervisor Scott Russell, the Main Road property plays a critical role in the future of Plum Island.

“It’s ferry access to the island and we want to make sure it stays that way,” he explained Monday.

In 2013, the Town Board took action to adopt local zoning for the 840-acre island, which is federally owned and therefore not currently subject to local planning regulations.

The new law established two zoning districts on the island, one for the research lab and the other a conservation district that prohibits development on 600 acres.

Now, town officials are considering a similar approach to addressing concerns about the ferry terminal in Orient.

Mr. Russell referred to the land as a “linchpin” to any plans for Plum Island. The terminal is currently zoned Marine 2.

“We have all these uses that are listed in the marine zones. I don’t really want to start tinkering with uses,” Mr. Russell said at the work session. “We’ve been focused on one parcel, but it has impacts on other zoned uses in town.”

Instead, board members discussed the idea of adopting a new zoning category, Marine 3, for the property.

The uses would be pared down from the town’s current Marine 1 and 2 districts and would not impact those parcels.

“We’ll narrow the uses substantially that are more consistent with what we think would need to be permitted for the viability of the island for preservation and at the same time eliminate uses that might compromise that,” Mr. Russell said during the work session.

According to a draft of the legislation, the purpose of the district would be to provide for water-dependent uses that are “highly compatible with the development limitations inherent in areas of minimal infrastructure.”

Permitted uses in the draft code would include marinas, boatyards, mariculture facilities, boat repair and sales facilities, town buildings and retail rentals of fishing and diving supplies.

Special exception uses could include snack bars without table or counter service, fish markets, museums or art galleries with a nautical, maritime or aboriginal theme, bed-and-breakfasts or nonprofit academic research or public education facilities whose work is associated with coastal and marine life.

It would also be a way to ensure the ferry continues to operate and allow for expansion for passenger use if, for example, part of the island becomes a public nature preserve.

The concept of Marine 3 zoning could move to a code committee and potential community input meeting, Mr. Russell said.

He likened the town’s zoning code to a menu.

“Sometimes you need to add choices … which means creating new zoning,” he said.

Ms. Harrison provided additional updates on the effort to save Plum Island at the work session.

A bloc of 109 organizations has joined the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, which hopes to see the island preserved, as either a federal or New York State refuge, she said.

“It’s really got a big reach now,” Ms. Harrison said.

Earlier this summer, coalition members traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Department of Homeland Security’s appropriations subcommittee.

“We actually had the privilege of meeting with majority and minority members at the same time in one room, which is not happening very often in Washington these days,” Ms. Harrison said.

There are several ongoing bipartisan efforts in the House and Senate to prevent the sale, through appropriations bills, for example.

Ms. Harrison reported that federal officials wanted to see a plan addressing what the group has in mind for Plum Island if it isn’t sold to a private developer.

“There is a codified process for how the federal government gets rid of properties,” she said.

The coalition is working with The Nature Conservancy and consulting firm Marstel-Day, which has expertise in moving federal properties into conservation status.

A report detailing reuse ideas for Plum Island is expected in November, Ms. Harrison said.

She said the state could play a big role in the preservation effort, citing that Governors Island, a former Coast Guard base, was preserved for public use through an agreement between New York City and the state.

Federal officials expect to shutter the Plum Island facility in 2023. A new lab in Manhattan, Kans., will allow its research to continue.

According to a January article in the Kansas State Collegian, that facility, which will be located at the university, “is on schedule to finish construction in 2020 and be fully operational by 2022.”

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