Judge Advances Challenge to US Sale of Plum Island

CENTRAL ISLIP (CN) – A tiny, one-road island teeming with life will see another day without the encroachment of developers after a federal judge refused Thursday to toss a challenge over the land’s sale.

“We’re incredibly pleased with the outcome and look forward to litigating the merits of this matter to ensure that this unique pristine natural environment is properly preserved,” Morrison & Foerster attorney Cameron Tepfer said in a statement.

Representing four environmentalist groups, Tepfer’s firm brought a federal complaint in 2016 to save Plum Island.

A remote, 840-acre island between Long Island and Connecticut, Plum Island has been federally owned since 1826.

Though it was established as an animal disease research facility for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1954, the government decided to move that research to Kansas in 2009 and then began attempting to sell off the island to the highest bidder.

In 2016, shortly after Save the Sound and other groups filed the underlying challenge, The New York Times reported on interest by the Trump Organization in building a golf resort on the island.

Save the Sound says private development would jeopardize a whole host of endangered flora and fauna on the island, but a supervisor for the town of Southold on the North Fork, whose jurisdiction the island falls under, assured the Times that zoning laws will continue to preclude resort development even after the land is sold.

Human access to Plum Island is strictly limited, which has helped make it a wildlife sanctuary where endangered species — birds like the roseate tern and piping plover — flourish.

Plum Island may not be a public park, but U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley found Thursday that this does not diminish the right of environmentalists to protest its sale.

“The fact that plaintiffs have no ongoing right to access Plum Island does not impede their ability to bird-watch or animal-watch on the island, to boat along the coast of the island, to fish in the island’s waters, to enjoy the scenic vista of the island from the land or surrounding sea, or to traverse the Island itself with permission for the foregoing purposes,” the 19-page opinion states.

Judge Hurley’s ruling also credits Plum Island as “home to the largest ‘seal haul-out area in southern New England.’”

Plum Island features “undisturbed habitat” that includes 196 acres of upland forest, 96 acres of freshwater wetlands and 101 acres of a “beach/dune” system, according to the ruling. It’s also home to over 217 species of rare birds. At least 57 species of endangered osprey call the island home as well. Whales, dolphins and seals often come there to forage.

“Once [Plum Island is] sold to developers, it’s gone forever,” warned Sen. Chris Murphy in 2016. “That’s why we need to use every tool at our disposal to protect Plum Island and its natural treasures from development.”

Now that the plaintiffs have vaulted the standing hurdle, Save the Sound chief legal officer Roger Reynolds said they will present their full case in court and “ask that the sale of the island be halted until the agencies complete a proper environmental review in accordance with federal law.”

A representative for the U.S. General Service Administration declined to comment on the ruling, citing a policy on pending litigation.

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