Air Base Confidential

Packed into the conference room of Sen. Bob Graham's downtown Miami office, Miami-Dade County officials gathered two weeks ago for a meeting with attorneys from half a dozen federal agencies overseeing the transfer of Homestead Air Force Base. Among those present: Mayor Alex Penelas and several members of his staff, County Manager Armando Vidal and various county department directors, and Homestead's Mayor Steve Shiver and City Manager John Asmar. Listening in from Washington via speaker phone was Graham.

Very few people were supposed to know about that meeting. In fact, nothing was put in writing and participants were prohibited from taking notes in an effort to avoid having the press request materials through state or federal public records laws. "That was by design," says a source who was present. "It was all verbal. The feds didn't want anyone even talking about this meeting and warned that if news leaked out, the negotiations could be jeopardized."

According to six different sources who attended the November 25 gathering, Kathleen McGinty, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the president's chief adviser on environmental issues, explained that the federal government was strongly leaning toward further extensive study of the environmental consequences of developing the base. The study's resulting document, known as a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), would have to be evaluated before the base could be conveyed to the county. An SEIS would be necessary, McGinty said, because the original environmental impact statement, which was prepared by the air force in 1993, was deemed to be no longer adequate.

"It looked like they were going to drop the boom on us," says another source who was there. But then, sources say, McGinty explained that a final decision had not yet been made and that she wanted to give the county one last chance to comment.

Graham, Penelas, and Shiver were disheartened by the news that an SEIS seemed inevitable, and they tried to persuade McGinty and the other federal officials that their reasoning was flawed. More important, according to the sources who attended the meeting, the politicians argued that the decision to conduct another study would delay transfer of the base (and postpone its commercial development) in a way that would have a hugely detrimental economic impact on South Dade.

Graham, Penelas, and McGinty were unavailable for comment. Shiver would confirm only that no final decision had been made by the federal government. "My community really needs to hear something positive from the CEQ," Shiver says. "We are still discussing the matter."

Two subsequent meetings were held on December 1 and 2, discussions one county official describes this way: "It's our effort to beg, to plead, to get down on bended knee if we have to with the air force and the CEQ to convince them not to put us through an SEIS." Adds another source: "It's been an intense and healthy dialogue."

A final decision on an SEIS is expected to be announced before the end of the year.

At the November 25 meeting McGinty and air force lawyers explained why an SEIS appears to be necessary: The county's plans for the air base have radically changed over the past few years. When the air force conducted its original EIS, the county had provided the federal government with projections on how quickly the base would be developed and the number of commercial flights to be expected.

Only after that EIS was completed did the county select a developer for the base -- Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., better known by its acronym HABDI. (The selection of HABDI was made by the county commission without competitive bidding and without a review of other proposals.) HABDI proposed massive development at a much faster pace than the air force had counted on originally. One example: HABDI's aviation plans suggest that a second runway will be necessary.

Federal officials believe these new plans warrant a new study of their effects on the environment. Recounts one of the meeting participants: "The initial argument they made was that because the projections have so dramatically changed, they couldn't justify the results of the original EIS."

Another attendee summarizes: "If you have an EIS and you change your projected use, then you have to have an SEIS."

According to the various sources, county officials then did something startling: They attempted to distance themselves from HABDI by claiming that the development group's projections have not been adopted by the county. This new approach baffled some members of the federal team. "It was all very confusing," one of them concedes. "They were trying to say the developer they picked doesn't represent their view of the base."

A county official elaborates: "Our question was, 'What if we limited the use of the air base to what was covered by the original environmental impact statement?' But the feds argued that they couldn't just ignore HABDI's numbers because they are already out there in the public record."

McGinty and the government lawyers tried to relieve the pain of an SEIS by telling local officials they had already lined up a contractor and had estimated that the study could be completed in eighteen months.

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