MAXWELL:  Environment, economy clash in South Florida

8/15/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Environmentalists and developers nationwide are watching events in South Florida, where politicians and their supporters have petitioned Attorney General Janet Reno to expedite plans to turn old Homestead Air Force Base into a modern jetport with up to 650 flights a day.

Pro-jetport people say, “Let the 747s fly.” Environmentalists say, “No way. We already have Miami International up the road.”

Although the ultimate answer will yield results directly salient to South Dade residents, it may affect similar disputes between business and environmental interests nationwide.

The issue: Homestead Air Force Base, closed after Hurricane Andrew destroyed it, once pumped $480-million into South Dade’s economy each year. Within days of the closure in 1992, the Bush administration and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton pledged to immediately transform the base into a commercial complex generating thousands of jobs.

Local officials and businesses established a redevelopment committee and wrote a plan to turn the base into a commercial jetport that would employ as many as 14,000. First, though, an environmental-impact study had to be conducted. The Air Force produced the first study in a nine-month blitz instead of the usual several years that such studies take. The plan was derailed in 1994, however, after the County Commission, in a no-bid process, granted exclusive building rights to Homestead Air Force Base Development Inc.

Environmentalists and their allies cried foul and demanded a new study, one that seriously assessed the proposed airport’s potential to further degrade the Everglades, Biscayne Bay and other natural treasures. The Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration asked for a second study in 1997. Officials say a draft of the study will be released at year’s end and will be finalized in March.

Here, the saga takes an unusual turn, one that could change how redevelopment wars are fought countrywide.

A group calling itself the Equal Justice Coalition _ including, among others, the mayors of Homestead and Florida City, two bank presidents, the executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau and the president of R-C-H Haitian Community Radio _ have hired a high-powered Washington lobby and have filed a “Petition for Extraordinary Relief” with the attorney general.

In its press release that quotes its own petition, the coalition writes that the “petition seeks an end to “unjustifiable, continuous imposition of irreparable harm’ to the health and welfare of the poor and minority residents of the communities surrounding Homestead Air Force Base as a result of unconscionable delay in the redevelopment of the base. The petition urges (Reno) to intervene and enjoin what the coalition believes are clear violations of federal civil rights, environmental, and environmental justice laws by the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, and the environmental groups that have acted under their cover.”

Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver said the petition, perhaps even further legal action, is necessary because a commercial airport would revive South Dade’s economy overnight. Although the rest of the nation and Florida are benefiting from a booming economy, South Dade remains one of the poorest sectors in the country, with more than a third of the population of Florida City and Homestead living below the poverty level and unemployment near 15 percent in Florida City alone, he said. If Shiver is right, local unemployment doubles that of the rest of the county.

As to Homestead being the location of a new jetport, Shiver said: “This is the only site in the county that is feasible. Late last week, Mayor Alex Penelas’ office reiterated his strong support for a reliever airport, and the conclusion that Homestead is the only place where it can be done. We are asking the attorney general to free us from this bureaucratic stranglehold, fueled by the callous indifference of powerful environmentalists, so that our community can be free to enjoy the full rights and privileges which come with being Americans.”

Environmentalists dismiss most of the pro-development’s jetport argument as being pure bunk. First, many business owners and officials say that another airport is unnecessary. But the heart of the environmental position is the preservation and rejuvenation of Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park and southern Biscayne Bay, all threatened natural resources.

Homestead is less than 2 miles from Biscayne National Park and about 7 miles from the Everglades. A major concern is that the $7.8-billion restoration plan in the works for the Everglades will collide with a multi-billion-dollar industrial development in the park’s back yard.

“There are no existing laws, in fact, capable of protecting the parks once this airport is permitted by the FAA,” said Alan Farago, chairman of the Sierra Club Miami Group. “So, we’ve been fighting on both the issue of direct impact, which is noise, disturbance, impacts on wildlife, and indirect impact, which has to do with the conversion of the last farmland in South Florida into a virtual industrial park.

“Were that to happen as an indirect impact, we can confidently predict that the flow of water to southern Biscayne Bay and into the national park would be irretrievably damaged, and the park and its resources would be lost. No commercial airport is next to a national park in any other part of the nation, and the environmental groups don’t want to see a precedent set in South Dade.”

From the beginning, environmentalists argue, local politicians, along with business people, have been hell-bent on building an airport _ and nothing else.

For most environmentalists, however, the issue is having or not having an airport per se. They know that South Dade has not recovered from Andrew, that the closure of Homestead devastated the economy, that new jobs are needed. Their major concern is bringing in a sustainable, non-polluting project. Ideally, they want to use the parks’ natural amenities to attract appropriate commercial development.

Farago is not hopeful, though. “We have one of the most rabidly anti-environmental corners of the nation down here,” he said. “It has really been a battle at every single turn. We wind up confronting the same issues, the same cast of characters. And this (environmental justice petition) is just another manipulative ploy that is very sad.”

Unfortunately, the battle for Homestead is so adversarial that an outside entity must step in. Meanwhile, as the two sides trade salvos, South Dade remains one of the most economically troubled parts of the the nation.