"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

A separate but related part of the federal process is the review of the EIS. Clinton's environmental advisory committee is overseeing that review, which is being conducted by the air force. Eventually the air force, in consultation with other federal agencies, will decide whether to conduct a supplemental EIS. As with every other faction embroiled in the Homestead debacle, there's division among the federal agencies, too. For instance, the Department of the Interior (which operates Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park) has maintained all along that a supplemental EIS is needed, while the air force has steadfastly argued the opposite.

Matters are equally knotty in the state process, in which a plethora of government agencies, along with HABDI and numerous environmental groups, are reviewing the development plan, trying to come to an agreement about how to ensure compatibility with the surrounding community and to limit impact on natural resources.

While the state and federal processes aren't legally intertwined, many of the same issues are being debated at both levels. One specific and highly controversial issue: the so-called Military Canal, a two-mile-long drainage ditch that runs from the air base straight into the bay waters of Biscayne National Park. After years of sampling, county and state biologists determined that the canal is contaminated with heavy metals and organic chemicals; scientists from both jurisdictions have concluded that the contaminants are probably having a harmful impact on the bay. But county officials go further, tracing the pollutants back to the base -- to more than 40 years of spilled jet fuel and other hazardous material -- and assert that because the property has been in federal hands all that time, the federal government should be responsible for cleanup. (The state has not pinpointed a pollution source.)

The issue is even more Hydra-headed at the federal level. The Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acknowledge the seriousness of the contamination problem and believe it is harming the park. But the air force and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disagree; both maintain that it is impossible to determine the source of the pollutants or whether they are having a deleterious impact on the bay. Until recently air force and EPA officials had dug in their heels and refused to budge. But at the prodding of Clinton's chief environmental advisor Kathleen McGinty, the agencies have begun to work with Dade and the state to settle the canal issue.

Comments Carlos Espinosa, assistant director of Metro-Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management: "If we can reach consensus, then we can work with the federal government to find solutions."

Consensus. The buzzword of the moment, the possible salvation of the process, the bureaucrat's fantasy. But as the Homestead Air Force Base Issue Team has demonstrated, consensus can be stretched to absurd lengths. To wit: As part of its recommendation that the county draw up a wildlife protection plan as a condition of the property transfer, the team wrote, "Nesting opportunities along the runway will be investigated."

So far the biggest losers in the air base tussle are the residents and business owners of Homestead. Not to mention the former residents and business owners of Homestead. Having been pounded by the ferocious one-two punch of Hurricane Andrew and the ensuing base scale-back, the city has stumbled economically ever since.

Initially the population of Greater Homestead took a dramatic fall; only recently has it climbed back to pre-storm levels. But as a spokesman for First National Bank of Homestead told the Water Management District governing board at the May 15 meeting, the numbers don't reveal a more daunting fact: The area lost most of its middle class. The Greater Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce has seen the region's hardship reflected in its own membership rolls: 825 before the hurricane and base closure; a little more than 400 after. (That number is back to more than 700 but will inevitably plummet again owing to scores of businesses that can't pay the annual dues, reports Kim Sovia, the chamber's president and CEO.)

But the hurricane-base double whammy was sudden, and the community had no choice but to adjust and rebuild. More insidious has been the tantalizing prospect of the economic benefit an airport would bring, an unfulfilled promise that has caused considerable psychological damage to the community.

Take Julie Romero, the woman who addressed the governing board of the Water Management District. She and her husband Jose "Manny" Romero, Jr., have watched their lumberyard decline since the base closed; she estimates the closure cost them about 30 percent of their business. "What we need is the airport development," declares Romero, whose husband is also a three percent investor in HABDI. "Where else is our economic engine going to come from?"

But Joseph F. Grimes II, a management consultant who is chairman-elect of Chamber South (a chamber of commerce that covers Kendall, South Miami, and South Dade), cautions against such a narrow focus. Recognizing that neither the redevelopment nor its eventual success is a certainty, Grimes says, Homestead's business community has begun developing plans to attract alternative business to the area. "We have to, because if we sit back and wait, we could be waiting a long time," he asserts. "I think the residents of South Dade have oversimplified things. Homestead is not going to be saved by this effort in any short-term way. And it's no guarantee that it's going to be the savior in the long term. That needs to be understood clearly by everyone, especially the Homestead people."

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