"It'll Never Get Off the Ground"

With nothing to show after four years but bitterness and bickering, the plan to turn Homestead Air Force Base into a commercial airport has gone from national model to national embarrassment

The morose expression on Julie Romero's face spoke of vanishing hope, of a woman betrayed. Along with more than two dozen other Homestead residents, she had made the 100-mile haul up to West Palm Beach in the hope that the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District would grant a permit commencing the redevelopment of the Homestead Air Force Base.

The permit would have allowed Dade County to build a system of drains and marshes to treat polluted stormwater flowing from the base. A modest beginning, to be sure, but a significant first step in the minds of South Dade residents for whom Hurricane Andrew remains a daily economic reality five years after the storm.

Yet as the Homestead contingent learned soon after their arrival at the May 15 meeting, the board wasn't going to vote: A coalition of conservationists had filed a legal challenge to the permit. An attorney for the district announced that the challenge would delay the permit at least another ten months to a year and a half. The prediction elicited a communal groan from the Homestead travelers clustered toward the front of the crowded meeting room. Several conservationists sitting nearby smiled smugly.

Although powerless to do anything about the environmentalists' parry, the governing board opened the microphones for public comment, and Romero, who owns a lumber company in Homestead, stepped forward. "When that gentleman said 'ten months,'" she told the governing board, "it was like a dagger right through my heart."

Romero's frustration was particularly understandable considering that, four years ago, then-deputy secretary of defense William Perry stood before Homestead community leaders and residents and publicly proclaimed that the air base was to be one of four "model bases" that would serve as national examples of how to convert out-of-date military facilities to civilian use. The designation, he promised, put Homestead on a "fast track" and would ensure greater government support in the effort to transform the facility into a joint military/civilian operation featuring a commercial airport.

Romero held up a sheet of posterboard on which was plastered an enlarged photocopy of an article from the Miami Herald describing Perry's announcement. Date: July 8, 1993. "Air Base Put on Fast Track for Renewal." "Today is May 15, 1997 -- four years later," she declared, her glare sweeping the members of the governing board. "I don't know what the meaning of 'fast' is, but I don't think that's what Webster's dictionary intended."

The redevelopment, in fact, is now in more doubt than ever. At the time of Perry's 1993 pronouncement, the plan seemed so straightforward: The federal government would hand over the property to Dade County, which would retain a private company to build and operate a commercial airport to serve South Dade and relieve overcrowding at Miami International Airport. County leaders quickly settled on a development group, Homestead Air Base Developers Inc. (HABDI), to which they awarded a controversial no-bid lease. And instead of following the customary regulatory procedure for permit approval, they resolved to implement a new process that promised to be much faster, if less comprehensive. The plan was moving along at a rapid clip.

Too rapid, as it turned out, for its own good. The initial haste prompted myriad environmental questions and challenges, which have slowed the conversion process to a standstill. The project is now on the verge of suffocation, caught in a political scrum.

The chaos involves several groups, and conflict often erupts within them as well as between them: environmentalists striving to protect the sanctity of two nearby national parks but divided about how to do it; the developers, politically influential but perhaps lacking both the experience and the financial wherewithal to accomplish their task; local, state, and federal agencies grappling with complex regulatory issues and with each other; South Dade residents still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Andrew and desperate for economic salvation, although quarreling about how to achieve it; and politicians -- from Homestead City Hall to the White House -- juggling the concerns of all these factions and saddled with plenty of concerns of their own, not least of which is political fallout in the next election.

The national implications of the Homestead air base redevelopment have become even more intense for the Clinton administration in recent weeks: This past month the Pentagon threatened more base closings. For those communities soon facing base closings of their own, the state of affairs in Homestead will offer little solace. Once a national model, the project is now a national embarrassment.

THE ENVIRONMENTALISTS
Two weeks ago Alan Farago spent a long weekend on an island in Maine. "I have to get out of here for a while," he moaned on the eve of his departure from Miami. He said he was exhausted. Barbara Lange has her own Maine vacation planned: She's leaving in August and says she can't wait.

Farago is a member of the Sierra Club's Miami chapter; Lange is vice-president of Friends of the Everglades. They are two of the local environmentalists who have been bird-dogging the base redevelopment process for months (in Farago's case, years) attending meetings, writing memos, and mobilizing support. "The government grinds you down with process until you're so bored sitting in these meetings that you feel like you're losing your mind," a weary Lange is wont to say these days. "If it's boring, nobody's going to report on it, and the public won't realize what's really going on." The irony is that nobody has used the process better than Lange, Farago, and their ilk. Had they not paid any attention to the issue, the base may already have been in the county's hands by now.

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