"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

HABDI and supporters of base redevelopment have been trying to exploit this internecine discord, calling the litigious faction "extremist" and accusing them of wantonly impeding the process in hopes of killing the project. "'Progress' is not throwing any kind of monkey wrench that they can find into the process," asserts Steve Shiver, a Homestead councilman who has lobbied to get the redevelopment going. The lawsuit-minded activists, whose ranks include Lange and Farago, deny that they are waging a war of attrition. The challenges, they say, stand on firm legal and moral foundations, and blame should be laid at the feet of the Metro Commission, which felt compelled to accelerate redevelopment rather than take a more cautious route.

"This is not about abstractions," argues Joe Browder, a Washington, D.C., environmental consultant and a director of Friends of the Everglades. "This is about the health of Biscayne Bay, the health of the Everglades."

Browder's memory is long, his passion deep. He grew up in Miami and, though a Washington resident for decades, has spent much of his time waging environmental battles in South Florida. One of his most vivid recollections is of Dade County's aborted attempt in the late 1960s to build an airport in what is today Big Cypress National Preserve. After Browder spearheaded a civic uprising against the plan, President Nixon stepped in and killed the project.

There have been plenty of others, with a heavy concentration in the Greater Homestead area. "South Dade has always seen itself as the stepchild of economic development in Dade County and, as a result, has traditionally tried for that kind of development that no other part of the county would want or have," asserts Browder, who rattles off a list of projects, some of which succeeded in getting off the drawing board, others of which failed, and all of which threatened the natural ecosystem: a petrochemical plant (failed), a nuclear reactor (succeeded), a seaport (failed), a rocket-testing facility (succeeded). The redevelopment of the base, Browder notes, is merely the most recent such proposal.

As he sees it, the stakes are particularly high in this fight: The way the federal government handles the issue will stand as a litmus test for how future challenges are confronted.

"One of our country's gifts to the world is the concept of national parks, places of such extraordinary value that they can't -- and won't -- be compromised by local development, no matter what the temptation, because these special places belong to the nation," Browder says. He contends that, with the Homestead deal, the Clinton administration is capitulating to local development pressures and abdicating, as the protector of national parks, its responsibilities -- the first and foremost of which would be to do a thorough EIS. "When the White House flagrantly ignores the laws designed to protect those national parks," he warns, "that's not a good sign for national parks anywhere in the country."

THE DEVELOPERS
Among the scores of people who jammed the meeting room of the Water Management District's governing board along with Homestead merchant Julie Romero this past month was Miguel DeGrandy, a former state legislator who is now an attorney for HABDI. The development group had been counting on the board to approve the permit allowing construction to finally begin. The approval, of course, didn't come. DeGrandy was furious but publicly defiant. The environmentalists, he seethed, would not defeat the project. "They may succeed in killing South Dade's economy," he told New Times, "but they won't succeed in killing the airport."

Several days later DeGrandy took the bad news to HABDI's board of directors. It probably wasn't a chore he looked forward to: HABDI's board meetings had become increasingly marked by acrimony and dissension, and optimism among shareholders was on the wane. All remaining hope delicately hung on the permit approval. And HABDI's president, Carlos Herrera, had done his best to salvage the group's morale, confidently predicting passage of the permit.

But as DeGrandy described how the environmentalists had succeeded in delaying the development, the board members went numb. The shock soon turned to anger and feelings of betrayal. Herrera, they felt, had misled them with his blind optimism.

According to two well-informed sources involved with HABDI, who requested anonymity, board member Pedro Adrian was particularly upset. (Neither Herrera nor Adrian returned phone calls seeking comment for this story.) Adrian had agreed to invest in HABDI in January 1996 at Herrera's urging; now he was wondering how he might pull out. He demanded to know how much longer he and his fellow investors were supposed to continue sinking their money into a project that offered no foreseeable return. He even instructed HABDI's attorney not to cash his quarterly dues check until he had time to consider his options.

Then, sources say, Adrian demanded that HABDI's budget be trimmed and zeroed in on Herrera's $350,000 annual salary. Adrian and the other board members argued that it made no sense to continue paying the president so much money for a project that was in limbo. Adrian said he would support paying Herrera his salary for the next three months -- out of fairness -- but after that the president should be prepared to take a substantial pay cut.

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