The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Monday released a report on the alternatives to selling Plum Island to the highest bidder.
The 42-page report examines three future options for the island, one of which is the same old option — continuing with the plan for a competitive sale of the island.
The public sale was mandated by the 2008 federal law ordering the closure of the animal disease laboratory there, which will be replaced by a new lab being built in Manhattan, Kansas.
The other two possibilities examined are the “retention and reuse of the property” by the Department of Homeland Security and the Property Act Disposition Authority, which gives the federal General Services Administration authority to convey property to other federal agencies or groups that would operate it for public benefit.
The Department of Homeland Security report was prepared as a requirement of the senate report accompanying the 2016 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which states that DHS should consider “conservation of the island’s resources including those of historic, cultural, and environmental significance; analysis of any remediation responsibilities; the need for any legislative changes; cost; and revenues from any of the alternatives.”
The report, “Alternatives for Final Disposition of Plum Island,” made available online here by Congressman Lee Zeldin, actually points to other documents already prepared — the 2013 Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the sale of the island and an “environmental gap analysis” on hazardous substances on the island, prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in coordination with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation in 2010.
It also points out that the Plum Island Lighthouse has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2011, and the Department of Homeland Security has submitted a National Register nomination for Fort Terry, built on the island in 1897, to the New York State Historic Preservation Office for review.
The report says the Department of Homeland Security and its Joint Lead Agencies in environmental review are also complying with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, coordinating data on endangered species with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and are working to meet the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The report says the federal government is expected to close the lab and fully transition work there to Kansas in August 2023, “regardless of how the property is ultimately disposed.”
It also details work underway to market the property, providing tours of the island and getting feedback from focus groups comprised of real estate developers and brokers; conservation, research and preservation groups; research and development groups; and educational, health care and religious institutions through the fall of 2016.
The report does acknowledge that Southold Town’s 2013 zoning of the island for a research facility and conservation uses “create a scenario that mimics the existing uses and dramatically limits reuse opportunities.”
As for alternative uses, they are first mentioned on page 36 of the 42-page document. Only one paragraph is devoted to “DHS Retention and Reuse of the Property,” because, on the basis of recent internal reports, “the cost to retain and reuse existing facilities outweighs any potential benefit.”
The second alternative to the sale, the “Property Act Disposition Authority,” gives the federal General Services Administration, which is charged with the disposal of the property, “broad authority to dispose of excess and surplus real property,” allowing GSA to transfer the property to other federal agencies, to convey at a discount price to state and local governments and eligible non-profit organizations, or to sell property at fair market value.
According to the report, any federal agency interested in the property is required to pay full fair market value, unless a sale is authorized by Congress for migratory bird management, wildlife conservation or federal correctional facilities. If another federal agency takes ownership of the island, DHS would not be required to perform any necessary environmental cleanup on the island, but it would need new legislation from Congress to make this happen.
If no federal agency steps forward to claim the island and a discount sale is considered, potential buyers must be evaluated for their intent to fulfill the “highest and best use” requirements of the federal government.
The “highest and best use” screening for public uses includes such uses as homeless assistance, education, health, emergency management, law enforcement, correctional facilities, parks and recreation, historic monuments and wildlife conservation.
If the process of finding a discount buyer is selected, the DHS report states that the federal government will incur additional expenses for screening potential buyers and for environmental remediation, which must be done before the sale of the property, and that the “conveyance of the property through a public benefit discount program will not produce any revenue.”
The Property Act Disposition process also allows for a “negotiated sale at fair market value for other public purposes such as economic development.”
The report ends by concluding that the current course being considered, a competitive public sale, “likely would generate the most revenue compared to other alternatives analyzed for the final disposition of the property.”
The competitive public sale option also requires that the federal government clean up the property before it is sold.
In reaction to this report, Congressman Lee Zeldin said it “makes it clear that selling Plum Island to the highest bidder is the wrong answer for the economy, environment and local community. The DHS report that was just released lists some potential alternatives for the island, but reinforces the need for the Senate to act now to pass my bill to stop the sale of Plum Island (H.R. 1887).”
Mr. Zeldin said in a press conference discussing his bill earlier this spring that it will direct the General Accounting Office to perform a detailed study of the future options for Plum Island if the coalition of agencies and citizen groups working to preserve the island aren’t happy with the DHS report.
Mr. Zeldin’s bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in May and he said at the time that he expects Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal to take it up in the Senate.
“While my legislation previously passed the House, we are still waiting for the Senate to act on this important bill to pursue a better direction for Plum Island that would allow for continued research, public access and permanent preservation,” he said. “I thank Senator Blumenthal for his leadership and partnership on this issue thus far and look forward to supporting his efforts however possible to see this legislation now passed in the Senate as well.”
Environmentalists were also quick to criticize the report.
“Despite being given a second bite at the apple, the Department of Homeland Security has once again fallen short when it comes to identifying options for protecting Plum Island,” said Leah Schmalz, program director for Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound. “Homeland Security had clear instructions from Congress and six months to put together a strong report. Instead, what they cobbled together has a sparse review of old wildlife information, only the most basic look at alternatives to an unfettered sale, and no concrete recommendations for how to reuse the current facility while conserving the island’s priceless dunes, wetlands, and bluffs.”
“The Preserve Plum Island Coalition is deeply disappointed with DHS’s Plum Island Report,” said John Turner, spokesman for the 60+ member Preserve Plum Island Coalition. “The report is incomplete and lacks meaningful data, superficial in its analysis, does not adequately assess the potential of alternatives to the sale of the island and, most importantly, doesn’t comply with the Congressional directive. It represents nothing more than a low-effort, cut-and-paste job of past documents. Congress should reject this woeful document and tell DHS to conduct the detailed analysis that both Plum Island and the public deserves and that Congress required.”