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U.S. House passes bill to stop Plum Island sale

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill — for the second time in two years — that would block the sale of Plum Island to a private bidder.

As the expected 2022 move of the island’s federal animal disease research laboratory to Kansas approaches, legislators and local activists have pushed legislation and legal action that would steer the future of the island toward conservation and away from private development.

The Department of Homeland Security has jurisdiction over the island, an 840-acre stretch of land off the north fork of Long Island that was named by Dutch explorers after the beach plums that grow there.

Congress voted in 2008 to close the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which conducts research on animal diseases like foot-and-mouth disease, and move it to a new facility in Kansas by 2023.

It also directed the federal General Services Administration to sell the island, part of the town of Southold, at auction, and government officials continue to market the island to bidders as a "fully self-sufficient property" featuring the research buildings, natural undeveloped land, an 1869 lighthouse and ferry docking facilities.

The House bill passed Tuesday, if approved by the Senate, would require the General Services Administration (GSA) to stop spending money on trying to sell the island until a new study is completed that provides alternative options for the island’s future that focus on conservation, rather than sale.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., and cosponsored by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, also would suspend the 2008 and 2011 laws that mandated the sale.

It’s a similar measure to one Zeldin proposed in 2016, which the House passed unanimously but was never brought to a vote in the Senate.

A previous study on potential options for the island was “basically a real estate appraisal” that didn’t take into account the option for preserving the land and transferring it to a governmental or nonprofit entity, Courtney said in an interview Tuesday.

"The structure of the bill is to stop the sale process in its tracks and send it back to GSA for a much more thorough, detailed analysis," he said.

The House bill prohibits the sale of the island until 180 days after the report is submitted to Congress.

Courtney said that he was hopeful the bill’s passage early in the congressional session would increase the likelihood of its passage in the Senate this time around.

“This is a good thing, to move it before the August recess,” he said. “Sooner is better.”

The 2008 and 2011 laws directing the government to sell the island were passed so that proceeds from the sale could help fund construction of the new facility in Kansas.

But the new facility is now closer to being completed using money from the federal government’s general fund, Courtney said, and the revenue is unnecessary.

If the Senate approves the measure that the House passed Tuesday, both environmental advocates who say the island has become a crucial habitat for numerous species and local officials who oppose private development would consider it a victory.

“It is an important first step toward preserving Plum Island,” said Chris Cryder, a special projects coordinator with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, one of several local groups that have advocated against the sale.

The animal disease lab, built in 1954, only takes up a small portion of the island, and the remainder was left as open space that provides critical habitat for endangered birds, plants and other wildlife.

But while Cryder called the bill’s passage by voice vote Tuesday “good news,” he added that the Senate still must approve it and that the GSA still is authorized to sell the island before that happens.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Tuesday that he supported both Tuesday's bill and its 2016 predecessor. He said he was doubtful that a private buyer would come forward to buy the island, and said the town has passed zoning laws that prohibit residential or commercial development on the island.

"This pie-in-the-sky notion that a buyer wants to buy it and develop this 700 acres into this wonderful escapist resort is just not going to happen, and it's foolish," Russell said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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