Plum Island for Sale?

Expatriat British novelist and travel writer Lawrence Durrell, writing in Reflections on a Marine Venus, described a “rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit” that he dubbed “islomania.” “These are people,” he stated, “who find islands somehow irresistible.” In that spirit, we continue our series on federally owned islands, the first of which profiled Washington State’s McNeil Island. Today, we examine Plum Island, an 840-acre island located 1.5 miles off the eastern tip of Long Island, New York, that the federal government has owned since 1826—and that GSA has proposed selling in the near future.

Originally named Manittuwond by the Native American Pequot Nation, the island got its current name from the beach plums that grow along its shores. During the Spanish-American War, the federal government built Fort Terry there. In 1954—in response to animal disease outbreaks in Mexico and Canada—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) to study foot-and-mouth disease in cattle. (The government also conducted secret biological warfare research there, until President Richard Nixon ended the program in 1969.) The USDA’s $7.7 million, 164,000-square-foot Building 101 laboratory facility was dedicated on September 26, 1956. The center now comprises 70 buildings, some of which have been renovated multiple times and many of which have become dilapidated. The island has its own fire department, power plant, and water treatment plant. Additional assets on the island include undeveloped land, a lighthouse constructed in 1869, and other buildings and facilities associated with the former Fort Terry.

In 2003, Plum Island was transferred to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Today, PIADC remains the nation’s only laboratory that studies infectious animal diseases that could affect the livestock industry. PIADC scientists continue to study more than 40 foreign animal diseases and several domestic ones, educate veterinarians about foreign animal diseases, and test animals and animal products being imported into the United States. In addition to PIADC, DHS owns and operates a 9.5-acre support facility at Orient Point, N.Y., that contains buildings, utilities, and ferry docks.

The Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2009 mandated the sale of Plum Island as a result of DHS’s decision to replace PIADC with a new federal facility, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), to be built in Manhattan, Kansas, at an estimated cost of $1.14 billion. (DHS had proposed selling Plum Island to raise funds to build the new facility.) The development of NBAF has been put on hold, however, as funding for it has been eliminated from the federal budget in recent years; the sale of Plum Island also has been on hold, as declining land values made it extremely unlikely that it would generate a profit for the government. In addition, local environmental groups—including Save the Sound (a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment) and the Citizens Campaign for the Environment—oppose the sale of the island, which is home to more than 100 bird species and the area’s largest seal colony.

In July, GSA released the Plum Island Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which states that “subject to the availability of funds,” the construction of the Kansas facility is estimated to be completed in 2019, after which work on Plum Island would transition to NBAF by 2021. It also states that DHS will maintain PIADC during the interim period. Most significantly, after exploring a “no-action scenario” as well as four “action alternative” scenarios, the DEIS recommends that the island be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The “action alternatives” studied included low-density development (with about 90 residential units), a high-density option (with up to 750 units), adaptive reuse of the laboratory buildings, and a conservation/preservation option. However, as the DEIS states, “the future reuse of the property once it leaves federal ownership will be subject to local zoning, permitting requirements of state regulatory authorities, and review pursuant to the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act.” The Town of Southold already has announced that it plans to re-zone the island, and 24 remaining Superfund contaminated waste sites on it still need to be remediated, making any sale problematic, to say the least. The next steps in the process may become clearer later this month: GSA has scheduled public hearings on October 17 and 18 in Old Saybrook, Conn., and Greenport, N.Y., respectively.

Want Capitol Markets articles delivered straight to your inbox?