Public feedback on a draft environmental impact statement prepared by the federal government was a near consensus at a public hearing Thursday night addressing the proposed sale of Plum Island: no new development.
Lead by Lee Walton of Amec, an engineering firm, representatives of the U.S. General Services Administration broke down the environmental study point-by-point during a 40-minute presentation to a crowd of about 70 people in the Greenport High School auditorium. But one slide proved to be the most controversial — four suggested uses of the island included adaptive reuse of the existing animal disease center buildings, high and low density development, and conservation /preservation (which was added only after comments during a previous public hearing during the scoping session of the island’s sale).
According to one federal representative at Thursday’s hearing, this analysis is so general by nature as to not restrict the types of uses that could work on the Plum Island of the future and benefit the community at large — housing would generate tax revenue for Southold Town, for example. But conservation / preservation should be the only option, according to many speakers at the presentation.
Since Congress first approved the sale of the site in 2008 with the stipulation that a new site for Plum Island's aging animal disease research center would be found, the GSA has been preparing the draft environmental impact statement. A site near Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., was identified as a possible location for a new $1.4 billion lab in 2009.
But the project is yet to be funded, and Southold Town is zoning the land for the eventual sale, the proceeds of which, in theory, would be required to help pay for the Kansas facility.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said on Thursday that the 840-acre Plum Island "should be left as Plum Island.”
“High density development has historically not been a pattern in Southold Town, so it does not make sense here,” he said. “Its sole aquifer would not provide enough water for that type of density, and it would diminish the character of the community as a whole.”
Russell, a former town assessor, also said that the projected $42 million a housing development would generate is “grossly over-estimated.”
“It would generate about 1/40 of that,” he said, adding that the animal disease research facility should stay in operation on the island as it continues to employ hundreds of local people.
Doug Moore of Greenport, who is retired from the federal government and was employed at Plum Island, agreed that the island and its facility should stay in federal hands at this point, given the uncertainty of the proposed new facility in Kansas.
“I think we’re at a tipping point here regarding the sale of the island — the benefits of selling it do not seem to override the potential detriments to the island and the community,” he said.
Increased traffic congestion and a drain on fire and medical services from high-density development are potential detriments to the community on the mind of Orient resident Robert Hanlon, who spoke about the dangers of adding another ferry community to the existing users of Cross Sound Ferry in Orient Point.
“It’s astounding that you would say that development would have no significant impact to Orient,” he told the panel of federal representatives. “Ferry traffic from Cross Sound is already so intense — people can hardy pull out of their driveways in the summer — and now you want to add 750 families on Plum Island? And think of fire and medical service — we have a great fire department but there is a great deal of effort involved in serving the Orient community as it is. Building on an island that’s never been built upon does not make any sense in the Town of Southold.”
Many others spoke of the importance of preserving the island to maintain its lush fish and wildlife and protect several endangered and at-risk species that have found a haven on Plum Island, about two-thirds of which is untouched wilderness.
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment, said that while she understood that this specific draft environmental impact statement addresses the sale of and not the potential reuses of Plum Island, the analysis is “woefully and remarkably deficient.”
“What about soil and groundwater contamination?” she said. “That’s something any buyer would need to know to assess property value and what they’ll have to clean up before the island is sold, and you fail to even mention it. We need to know how much water can be withdrawn from the aquifer in order to keep it sustainable.
“These comments need to be incorporated into the document, and if they are not, I suggest you stop this whole process, because we are not interested in an administrative process, we are interested in a meaningful process,” Esposito continued. “There seems to be an inherent contradiction in the way the federal government is working here — some agencies intend to sell off important natural resources to the highest bidder while others are trying to protect them. We all need to work to together to preserve the type of resource we have on Plum Island, because we won’t get another chance.”
Miss the meeting and want to comment? Written comments and inquiries can also be submitted to Phil Youngberg, c/o John Dugan, General Services Administration, 10 Causeway Street, Room 925, Boston, MA, 02222.
Comments are due by Oct. 26. The GSA plans to release a final environmental impact statement this winter. Go to www.plumislandny.com for more information.