Judge denies feds' motion to dismiss suit that would block sale of Plum Island

The Cross Sound Ferry, seen from the air on March 21, 2013, passes Plum Island en route to Long Island. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The Cross Sound Ferry, seen from the air on March 21, 2013, passes Plum Island en route to Long Island. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

A judge in federal court last week denied a motion by the U.S. General Services Adminstration and the Department of Homeland Security to dismiss a 2016 lawsuit filed by environmentalists who hope to prevent the federal government from selling New York's Plum Island.

Calling its effort to prevent the sale of the island "one of the most important battles of our generation," the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound filed the suit in in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in 2016.

The suit, which lawyers for the two federal agencies asked a judge to dismiss last year, alleges the agencies did not comply with federal law during an environmental review process for the proposed sale.

Lawyers for the General Services Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security filed a motion to dismiss the case last year, claiming they had not yet completed their full environmental review of the sale, among other complaints.

Last Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Denis R. Hurley denied the motion on all grounds.

CFE/Save the Sound Legal Director Roger Reynolds said Monday that Hurley's decision was encouraging.

"He very much understands the case, and the value of Plum Island," Reynolds said. "All we want is our day in court, and we think we'll get it."

The Department of Homeland Security has jurisdiction over the island, an 840-acre stretch of land off the north fork of Long Island.

Congress voted in 2008 to close the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which conducts research on animal diseases like foot-and-mouth disease on the island, and move it to Kansas by 2023. It also directed the federal General Services Administration to sell the island, part of the town of Southold, N.Y., at auction, and government officials continue to market the island to bidders.

The island is better suited for nonprofit or governmental use rather than private development, say opponents of the sale, including members of Congress from both Connecticut and New York.

Environmental advocates say the island has become a crucial habitat for several species including seals and more than 200 kinds of birds since the Department of Homeland Security limited public access after the disease center was built. Local officials also oppose sale to a private bidder.

In addition to Save the Sound, plaintiffs in the suit include the groups Soundkeeper, Group for the East End and Peconic Baykeeper, as well as author and historian Ruth Ann Bramson; advocate and birder John Turner; and John Potter of Connecticut-Rhode Island Coastal Fly Fishers.

Their pro bono attorneys are from the law firm Morrison & Foerster.

In the lawsuit, they ask the judge to invalidate the Department of Homeland Security's decision to sell the island at public auction, alleging among other complaints that the federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not considering the protection of endangered and threatened species, effects on coastal zones and economic impacts of a sale.

A proposed U.S. Senate bill that would rule out the sale of Plum Island to a private developer remains before the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, and the Senate has not yet taken up a similar 2017 bill passed in the House.


Editor's Note: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the level of public access to the island.


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