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On June 27, Sen. John Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island and chairman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, signed a letter asking the head of the General Accounting Office (GAO) to launch an immediate investigation into the environmental impact of Dade County's plan to transfer Homestead Air Force Base to a private developer. Meticulously outlining his concerns, Chafee noted that the base lies only 2500 feet from Biscayne Bay's Biscayne National Park and just a few miles from Everglades National Park. "These are two of America's most endangered national parks and the focal point of federal interest in ecosystem management in South Florida," Chafee wrote. "The Biscayne aquifer is the sole source of drinking water in South Florida."
Chafee also pointed out that "an investment of hundreds of millions of federal dollars" was being made to restore the Everglades, and it seemed foolish to spend such money while not knowing the adverse impact air base development might have on that project.
"It would be prudent to examine how the federal interest in ecosystem management and Everglades restoration is impacted, directly and indirectly, by reuse plans for the Homestead Air Reserve Base, and not limited to the issue of onsite pollution cleanup," Chafee continued. "I am therefore interested to know what specific actions have been taken through coordinated planning to protect the federal interest in advance of any development agreements for the base reuse. I am interested to know whether those actions are sufficient and whether water quality, storm-water management, and sustainable water supply -- key elements of sustainable economic development and Everglades restoration -- are guaranteed to be sufficient in their regional context through the conveyance of the Homestead Air Reserve Base and how the actions will be funded."
Adding an element of urgency to his request, Chafee explained that the federal government was on the verge of turning over the base to Dade County without having satisfactorily addressed any of these issues. "I am concerned whether safeguards exist to guarantee that disposition of this federal property will be accomplished in a manner consistent with the federal investment in ecosystem management and Everglades restoration," he wrote. "I would request that you complete this investigation as quickly as possible, and provide me with at least interim findings within 30 days."
When a signed copy of Chafee's letter was faxed to Alan Farago in his tiny Coral Gables office, the environmental activist says he was filled with a sense of hope that had otherwise been elusive over the past year. During those preceding twelve months, he had watched in frustration as county commissioners blithely awarded the base to a group of politically connected developers led by Carlos Herrera, president of the Latin Builders Association, a group whose ability to fill the campaign coffers of pliant politicians is legendary in South Florida.
In a rush to cater to Herrera and his partners (Camilo Jaime and Pedro Adrian), the county commission, without competitive bidding and without even soliciting other proposals, awarded the rights to develop nearly 2000 acres of the base to Herrera's Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., known by the acronym HABDI. At no point in the debate were environmental concerns raised.
But with Chafee ordering a formal inquiry (the GAO acts as the investigative arm of Congress), Farago believed these issues were finally going to be scrutinized. Within an hour of receiving the senator's letter, Farago had prepared a three-page press release and faxed it, along with a copy of Chafee's letter, to local media outlets and more than a hundred individuals and civic groups. "United States General Accounting Office to Investigate Conveyance of Homestead Air Reserve Base," blared the press release's headline. Farago was jubilant that evening as he left his one-man office, which serves as headquarters for the group he formed two years ago, the Alliance for Sustainable Communities.
The next morning, however, his elation turned to dejection. When he arrived at his office, he discovered a message on his answering machine from Chafee's office informing him that the senator had decided not to request a GAO investigation after all. That afternoon a letter arrived from Chafee.
"It has come to my attention that by press release dated June 27, 1996, your organization announced that I requested a GAO investigation of environmental impacts of the Homestead ARB conveyance," Chafee stated. "After writing a letter with the request to GAO, but before its delivery, I reconsidered my position and decided not to have the letter delivered.
"Regrettably, a copy of the draft was inadvertently provided to the Alliance before I made a final decision on whether or not to proceed. I am confident the environmental impacts of the conveyance will be considered by the appropriate authorities, and that a GAO investigation is not necessary at this time. I hope this clarification is helpful."
Nowhere in Chafee's GAO letter -- the one "inadvertently" sent to Farago -- did it indicate it was merely a draft. Not only did it bear the senator's signature, but Chafee had gone so far as to add a personal greeting to the head of the GAO, Charles Bowsher, in anticipation of Bowsher's receiving that very copy.