When environmentalists first got wind in 2008 that the federal government planned to sell Plum Island to the highest bidder, they did what reasonable citizens do, says Louise Harrison, a Southold conservation biologist, of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups Thursday evening looking to halt the sale.
First, she said, they raised their voices at public hearings and pointed out the flaws in numerous planning documents prepared for the sale. The federal General Services Administration, essentially the realtor for the federal government, and the Department of Homeland Security, which owns the island, kept moving ahead on their initial course, despite the protests.
Then, the citizens went to their legislators, pushing the Southold Town Board to enact zoning to prevent development on the island, which is home to numerous endangered and threatened species, and pushing members of Congress to work to halt the sale.
“At every level of government, politicians have tried to help us,” said Ms. Harrison. “Southold held hearings. New York State held hearings. We all went to the federal government hearings. We were reasonable and we were met with dismissive, cavalier, unreasonable behavior by the General Sales Administrations, or you might call it the General Steamrollers Administration, and the Homeland Sales Administration. They’re selling our homeland. This is ours. We have a right to speak up about what is ours.”
Now, after the Department of Homeland Security released a report on alternatives to the sale last week that was called “woefully inadequate” by environmentalists, they are left with little choice but to sue, said Chris Cryder, a spokesman for Save the Sound, which joined with a coalition of seven environmental groups and individuals suing the federal government, and their supporters, in a press conference announcing the law suit at Orient Point Friday afternoon.
“This is the most serious action we’ve taken to date. We don’t take this step lightly,” he said.
Preparations for the lawsuit have been in the works for more than a year — Mr. Cryder hinted at such a suit in discussions with the Southold Town Board in June of 2015.
The plaintiffs include Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound and Soundkeeper, Group for the East End, Peconic Baykeeper; birder and environmental advocate John Turner; CT/RI Coastal Flyfishers President John Potter and historian and author Ruth Ann Bramson of East Marion, lead author of “A World Unto Itself: The Remarkable History of Plum Island, NY.”
Joshua Roy, a managing attorney of their pro bono law firm Morrison & Foerster, told attendees at Friday’s press conference that the lawsuit alleges that the federal government failed to consider conservation alternatives or a bifurcated sale of just the laboratory facilities on the island, since the original act of Congress authorized the sale of the infrastructure supporting the animal disease research lab there, not the whole island.
The suit also alleges the federal government failed to consider any form of sale other than a public auction, failed to consider the potential transfer of the island to another government agency, and failed to adequately detail the necessary environmental cleanup of the island.
Ms. Bramson said “the story of Plum Island is America’s story in miniature,” pointing to its history in the relationship between Native Americans and early settlers, its role in the slave trade, in rumrunning, in military history and in science, and even its role in the 2016 presidential race — presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s development firm had inquired about building a golf course there.
“This island is owned by Americans, and it should stay that way,” she said.
Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca said it seems that the decision to sell the island to help raise funds to build a new biosafety lab in Kansas, slated now to cost more than $1 billion, was poorly thought out from the start — best estimates put the market price of the island at about $30 million before Southold’s zoning was in place, though no formal appraisal has ever been made public.
“It’s like it’s on a toxic autopilot,” he said. “This is what it takes when government goes awry to get it back on track.”
Mr. DeLuca added that any developer looking to purchase the island would have deep enough pockets to “press and squeeze” Southold Town over its zoning restrictions, which zone the island for what is there now — a research facility and open space.
While Southold Town is not a party to the lawsuit, Southold Town Councilman Bill Ruland stood beside the plaintiffs and offered the town board’s support.
“We know there’s going to be more turmoil, and the Town of Southold stands willing to assist in any way we can,” he said. “Our zoning is in the best interest of the town, and we are prepared to vigorously defend that.”
“We’re fully able to press back,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing.”