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Plum Island coalition campaigns for national monument

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

The Department of Homeland Security will finish closing the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in 2028 at a cost of $150 million. At a town work session on Tuesday, Group for the East End and Save the Sound representatives made a case for preserving the 840-acre island, arguing its ecological, cultural and historic significance

“Our president is going to want to know that our governor supports that. No president is going to declare a national monument in a state unless that state is in favor of it. We know that any governor of New York is not going to make that kind of a declaration without approaching the town. Here you are,” said Louise Harrison, New York National Areas Coordinator at Save the Sound. 

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

A 2020 report from the Preserve Plum Island Coalition details a vision for a 640-acre preserve, 125-acre research complex and a small museum highlighting 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 legislators and to the governor’s office after the coalition made a case for support at an environmental roundtable last week. 

According to Ms. Harrison, federal agencies will have 30 days to indicate interest in purchasing Plum Island. If no agency expresses interest, the island will be available at the state level, the county level and then the town level for 30 days apiece. An agency expressing interest would extend the process. 

The DHS is responsible for any contamination created on the island by law, according to Ms. Harrison. “They should be made to continue to hold that liability in the future,” she said. 

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

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

The coalition would like 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 see this settled soon.” She said New York State has not shown direct interest in owning Plum Island, but the state commissioners of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and Department of Environmental Conservation have sent a letter recently saying they would like to help see the site preserved. 

The federal government put Plum Island up for sale in 2008, to the shock of local lawmakers, putting the land at risk of development. The DHS intends to construct and operate a new National Bio and Agro Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas. Plum Island was taken off the auction block 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 set as a conservation district that prohibits development on 600 acres. The Plum Island ferry dock was also zoned MIII, a brand new zoning district dedicating that facility to access to and from Plum Island, Ms. Harrison said. Under Southold town code, Marine III permits ferry terminals for ferry service to and from Plum Island only, with some accessory uses. The Suffolk Times has previously reported the rezoning was part of efforts to preserve the island

The New York Natural Heritage Program found at least five significant natural ecological communities on Plum Island in 2015, according to Ms. Harrison, including 97 acres of freshwater wetland. Save the Sound has sponsored further underwater investigation of the island, including a dive in August. The results of the dive will be presented March 31. 

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

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

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