Temporarily Grounded?

The race to develop Homestead Air Force Base could soon hit a major snag. It's called Mother Nature.

Any day now the Clinton administration is expected to announce a decision that may determine no less than the fate of South Dade and the Everglades. The question is whether the administration will allow the redevelopment of Homestead Air Force Base to proceed apace or will halt the project indefinitely pending a new review of its environmental consequences.

At least twice in the past three weeks high-ranking officials from several federal agencies have met behind closed doors to discuss the issue and the administration's possible direction. While the discussions are veiled in secrecy, sources intimately familiar with the talks say there is widespread concern among the agencies that far more analysis needs to be done to ensure that the ambitious redevelopment project won't pose unacceptable risks to the environment. A new, full-scale environmental review -- if the administration decides to order one -- would probably delay the endeavor another twelve to eighteen months and could result in a rollback of current plans, which call for a massive airport-industrial-residential complex nestled between two national parks.

Much of the interagency scrutiny is centered on one particular document: the environmental impact statement (EIS), the study undertaken by the U.S. Air Force in 1993 to assess the environmental repercussions of building a commercial installation. (An EIS is required by law whenever ownership of federal property is transferred; in this case, the U.S. government has agreed to hand over the air base to Dade County, which in turn will lease the site to a group of developers to build and operate the airport and related facilities.) This past fall, as federal officials were preparing to transfer the South Dade property, a national coalition of conservation groups demanded that the government redo the EIS or face a lawsuit.

The environmentalists contended that the air force's EIS inadequately addressed issues of noise, pollution, and secondary development. Moreover, they argued, the study had been conducted before the developers, Homestead Air Base Developers Inc. (HABDI), had submitted their plans for the 1360-acre parcel. Finally, as the coalition pointed out, the EIS largely ignored the potential impact on Everglades National Park (ten miles to the west) and Biscayne National Park (two miles to the east).

In response the air force hired Earth Tech, a consulting firm in Colton, California, to review the EIS for weaknesses. Earth Tech completed its review sometime last summer. A draft of the consultant's report has been circulating for the past month among Clinton's environmental advisers, as well as among select officials from several agencies, including the air force, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Defense, Transportation, Justice, and the Interior. Representatives from those agencies met on September 19 and again on September 24 to discuss the report.

According to one Washington source familiar with the Earth Tech report and the agencies' review, the consultant's findings were highly critical of the EIS. "The consultant has confirmed the majority of the environmentalists' most serious concerns," says the source, who requested anonymity. (The air force has withheld comment on the review, except to issue a one-page statement outlining the basics of the process.)

A spokesman for the White House's environmental advisory committee, which is coordinating the review process, says he doesn't know when the administration will make its decision. Some administration insiders say an announcement is imminent. According to Ari Lynn Turner, policy director for Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, Vice President Al Gore told the mayor three weeks ago that the administration would make a decision "before the end of the year." (Indeed, in the absence of official comment, rumors and hearsay swirl wildly. One bit of gossip circulating in Miami this past week: The Clinton administration supposedly approached Penelas with an offer of $100 million in urban-renewal funds if he would drop his insistence on redeveloping the air base. "Completely untrue," insists Turner.)

In any case, the administration will likely respond in one of two ways: It will either undertake a supplemental EIS or it will carry on with the conveyance of the property but attach conditions and environmental safeguards to the deed. The coalition of environmental groups that originally raised doubts about the air force's EIS maintain their vow to sue if the government does not conduct a supplemental EIS. No number of lease conditions would do the work of a full-blown restudy, the environmentalists argue. A lawsuit, of course, could also tie up the development project for months, if not years.

The matter may come down to a test of Clinton and Gore's commitment to the environment and of their political will. Environmentalists speculate that even if the federal agencies agree that the EIS is fundamentally flawed and needs to be redone, Clinton and Gore may decide against a restudy as a matter of political convenience: By allowing redevelopment to resume, they wouldn't alienate HABDI and its comrades in the powerful Latin Builders Association, whose support could translate into significant Cuban-American votes and financial contributions in the next presidential election. Instead, the thinking goes, the administration might leave it to the environmentalists' lawsuit to force the government to do a supplemental EIS.

"I think this is a litmus-test issue," declares Alan Farago, a member of the Sierra Club's Miami Chapter and one of the staunchest foes of the development. "It's an instance where the rhetoric of protecting the environment meets the reality of insider politics, and there's a major question in the minds of the national environmental community whether or not the Democratic Party is able to represent the public interest in this matter."

While the Clinton administration might be torn on this topic, the same can't be said for the Dade County Commission, which, as a body, has tried to ram the deal through. The commission's most recent gesture came September 23, when it voted (nearly unanimously) in favor of a resolution that ordered the county's lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to fight a proposed bill designed to curtail airplane traffic above national parks. The bill, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, would allow the secretary of the interior to regulate flights in order to protect the so-called natural quiet of the parks.

Dade commissioners want the wording of the bill changed so it exempts Dade County, thereby allowing commercial planes to continue passing without restrictions over Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park. Under HABDI's plans, a commercial airport at Homestead would generate more than 250,000 flights annually, the majority passing over at least one of the parks. "By approving the resolution, Dade County has announced to the nation that this is one of the most anti-environmental jurisdictions in America," Farago says. "This resolution is a hostile act against the national parks."

Adds Joe Browder, an environmental consultant in Washington, D.C., and a board member of Friends of the Everglades: "Dade County has had a fig leaf concealing its real intentions. But now that fig leaf has dropped. Local government is saying that these parks can be the dumping ground for our noise and pollution in the interest of our economy."

And, in fact, during discussion that preceded the vote, Commissioner Natacha Millan said almost exactly that. "Show me an economic development motor and show me a bird," she proclaimed, "and I'm going to choose the economic development motor.

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