NY town eyes limit on use of Plum Island

Associated Press
ILE - In this Oct. 6, 2010 file photo, people on a tour of Plum Island, N.Y., off the coast of Long Island, watch seals relaxing on the rocky shore. Selling an island where scientists have experimented with infectious animal diseases since the dawn of the Cold War was going to be difficult enough. But it now appears any prospective buyer won't be able to do much with Plum Island anyway. As the federal government proceeds with plans to sell the island 100 miles east of New York City, Long Island officials are taking steps to prevent resorts or condos or any other development, even before the bidding for Plum Island begins. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
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MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — Selling an island where scientists have experimented with infectious animal diseases since the dawn of the Cold War was going to be difficult enough. But it now appears any prospective buyer won't be able to do much with Plum Island anyway.

As the federal government proceeds with plans to sell the island 100 miles east of New York City to defray the cost of moving animal disease research to a new billion-dollar laboratory in Kansas, Long Island officials are taking steps to prevent resorts or condos or any other development, even before the bidding begins.

The initiative has the support of environmentalists, who say the 843-acre island is a haven for several endangered bird species. But one prominent Hamptons real estate executive says not allowing development of Plum Island could affect the selling price by tens of millions of dollars.

"I know I would pay at least $100 million for that property," says Alan Schnurman, who has developed properties in Southampton and elsewhere on eastern Long Island. He predicted someone could build as many as 300 2-acre lots on Plum Island if it were open to development. The homes could sell for between $1.5 million and $2 million, he said.

"The value of that property is enormous, absolutely enormous," Schnurman said, noting many of the homes on the island would have spectacular waterfront views.

But some local officials doubt such claims.

"What is the marketability of an island that Hannibal Lecter turned down, anyway?" says Scott Russell, the supervisor of the town of Southold in a reference to the fictional character from the film "The Silence of the Lambs." Russell maintains Lecter had no interest in living at Plum Island and predicts developers will share that opinion. In fact, he says he has not heard of any developer expressing interest in the island.

The town, which will have jurisdiction over zoning once the property is sold, wants to create a 600-acre conservation zone on Plum Island. The move would keep the eastern part of the island — once used as a U.S. Army post during the Spanish American War — as a nature preserve. Some environmentalists envision allowing bird-watchers and others to visit the island under such a scenario.

The remainder, where animal disease research has been done since the 1950s, would be zoned for a research facility. The town's actions would preclude an ambitious developer from trying to build residential housing, or even some sort of exclusive resort, but would leave open the possibility that a university or other entity could utilize the existing lab.

A vote is expected in June; until now, there were no zoning requirements for the federally-owned property.

"It doesn't make fiscal sense," Russell said of development. "You're talking about an isolated island where you have to travel a two-lane country road to get to a ferry that has limited service. Realistically, it's not practical."

Besides the mention in "Silence of the Lambs," author Nelson De Mille wrote a 1997 book "Plum Island," featuring a fictional detective investigating the murders of island biologists. Plum Island scientists research pathogens like foot-and-mouth disease, which is highly contagious to livestock and could cause catastrophic economic losses and imperil the nation's food supply.

Security on the island consists of armed patrols, checkpoints, cameras, radar, locks and fences; it is operated under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, which is expected to remain there until the property is sold.

Congress voted in 2009 to close the aging lab and move operations to Kansas State University. Although a scientific study has questioned the wisdom of moving animal disease research to the so-called Beef Belt, President Barack Obama's latest budget includes $714 million for the project. Kansas officials also are selling bonds to pay for the new lab.

The General Services Administration, which is overseeing the sale, has not done any studies to determine what effect the proposed zoning would have on the purchase price, a spokesman said this week. The GSA anticipates a formal sale date will be announced once a construction schedule for the Kansas lab is finalized. The latest estimate has the Kansas facility opening is 2018, although the project has been fraught with delays.

A final environmental impact statement, required for the Plum Island sale, is expected from the GSA within 60 days. Environmental groups in both New York and Connecticut have lobbied for several years to keep the island as a nature preserve should it be sold. They are ecstatic over the Southold town's plans to restrict development.

"Plum Island is one of the last great coastal places of our region, replete with miles of beaches, hundreds of acres of open space, endangered animal species and rare plant life," said Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for New Haven, Conn.-based Save the Sound.

"By protecting a research/commercial use in the lab's current footprint and by preserving the vast majority of the island as a wildlife sanctuary of some type, we all benefit from the special resources of this island for generations to come," added Bill Toedter, president of the North Fork Environmental Council.

Despite speculation about what goes on there, scientists insist the island is safe. In recent years, hundreds of tons of medical waste, contaminated soil and other refuse has been shipped off the island. Other island sites have been cleaned in compliance with federal regulations. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined in 2006 that no munitions or ordnance remain from the Army base. As late as 2007, New York government inspection reports said there is no environmental threat on the island.

In recent years, lab operators have been more open about what they do, and have held tours and informational meetings there for journalists and community groups.

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