Air Base Confidential

The county, however, argued that an SEIS would delay base development for at least four years, not eighteen months. In addition to securing federal approval, the county must submit to state review, a process that is already well underway -- based on the original EIS. But if the federal government orders a supplemental study, the state can't legally use the first one either, county officials said. So the county would have to wait for the SEIS, then submit those results to Tallahassee and begin the state process anew. That review, they said, would take another two years.

Says one source involved in the discussion: "That's what is causing the feds heartburn right now. They were taken aback that everything could not go forward in tandem." Although the political implications of the pending SEIS decision were not discussed, this participant notes that if redevelopment of the base were put off for four years, it could have serious consequences in the year 2000 for both Vice President Al Gore, who will be running for president, and for Alex Penelas, who would be up for re-election. "If nothing is happening at that base," the source predicts, "then both Penelas and Gore are going to have a hard time winning votes down there."

Penelas and Graham are pressing McGinty and the air force to allow some form of limited development while further environmental review takes place, according to several sources. "I think they are going to find a way to allow something to happen out there," a county official asserts. One possibility being discussed would permit limited rebuilding of the air base's hurricane-damaged terminals, as well as a restricted number of commercial flights. They might also allow HABDI to proceed with plans for the construction of nonaviation structures such as office buildings to attract "high-tech industry to the area," according to the county official.

Not everyone is thrilled that these discussions are being held secretly. County Commissioner Katy Sorenson is angry that she had to learn about the meetings from a reporter and notes that neither she nor Commissioner Dennis Moss were asked to participate. "It's very odd that the elected commissioners who represent South Dade have not been invited to meetings on one of the most critical issues this county is facing," she says. "Who developed the guest list? Were they afraid we might be party poopers?" (County staffers claim the guest list was put together by Graham's office. A spokeswoman for Graham denies it.)

Last week a coalition of environmental groups wrote President Clinton requesting that the federal government move forward with a supplemental study. "On the eve of the upcoming 50th anniversary celebration of the establishment of Everglades National Park, we urge you to make a decision that will protect Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, and the entire South Florida region," the December 1 letter stated. Among those signing the letter were Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club; John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Ronald Tipton of the World Wildlife Fund; Stuart Strahl of the National Audubon Society; and Joette Lorion of Friends of the Everglades.

"An SEIS that takes the necessary hard look at the environmental impacts of the developers' proposed international 'hub' airport with two runways is a necessary predicate to making a decision that will impact the greater Everglades ecosystem for generations to come," the letter continued. "Taking this hard look now, before construction or operation of a commercial airport is phased in, is critical to ensuring that the right decision is made. If a commercial airport is allowed to proceed at Homestead, we believe a second runway is likely to become an inevitability for safety reasons, to meet predicted aviation demand, and to make the airport economically feasible."

The environmentalists also asked the White House to consider other options for rebuilding South Dade's economy. "It is not a question that South Dade needs economic redevelopment in the wake of Hurricane Andrew," the groups wrote. "The real question is what type of redevelopment project at Homestead Air Reserve Base will bring maximum prosperity to the region, what type of redevelopment will bring the highest-paying, most-skilled jobs, what type of redevelopment will best promote the long-term protection of the nearby national parks, which make South Florida such a desirable place to live and visit."

In a pointed jab at HABDI, the environmentalists added: "Certainly some people stand to gain from construction of an airport at Homestead, but those who stand to gain the most are not necessarily the people of Homestead."

Finally the environmentalists questioned whether Homestead is really the best location for a reliever airport for Miami International, and they urged the president to study other possible sites, including Opa-locka: "We believe that the only way to adequately determine where to site Dade County's next large commercial airport -- and for the federal government to satisfy its legal obligations -- is to conduct a comprehensive regional aviation services study."

Homestead Mayor Shiver rejects the environmentalists' suggestions. "Personally," he says, "I'd like to see the base conveyed with no restrictions whatsoever."

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