Underlying Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s demand this week that the federal government investigate potential health effects and the environmental impact of the sale of Plum Island is a sense that the remarkable and history-filled isle should be preserved. This helps put necessary pressure on Washington to save the island as open space and help protect Long Island Sound.
Congress decided about four years ago that the national animal disease laboratory there should be shuttered and a facility to expand its work built in Kansas. The General Services Administration said at the time that the island should be sold to help pay for the new lab. However, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, a number of private groups, and officials in Connecticut said that concerns about groundwater contamination and residual toxic waste should be resolved before the island was put up for bid. Southold Town, of which the 840-acre island is a part, recently outlawed residential development there. And for his part, Representative Tim Bishop said he is working in Congress to block the sale.
Though those opposed to private development of Plum Island hailed the Southold Town Board’s unanimous decision to change its zoning, much risk remains. The main concern is that a future board could reverse the decision and pave the way for perhaps hundreds of houses and intensive ferry traffic, with harmful effects on migratory wildlife and surrounding waters.
The precedents for public preservation of federal properties once used for military or research purposes are many and include Camp Hero State Park in Montauk. The transfer of Plum Island to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, an environmentally responsible entity, or even the State of New York would be the right choice.