Collision Course

On one side are politicians and influential business interests. On the other are environmentalists and some very wealthy private citizens. In the middle is Homestead Air Force Base. Dead ahead: An explosive confrontation.

Joining the Collier family is Lacey Hoover Chase, whose father, Herbert Hoover, was both the founder of the Hoover vacuum cleaner company and a renowned environmentalist. It was Lacey Hoover Chase's idea to create a world-class aquarium and an environmental education center on the site. "This is sort of like a marriage," she says of her partnership with the more business-minded Colliers. "If you are going to be an environmentalist in this day and age, you need to understand the economic issues as well and bridge the gap between the two."

The Collier-Hoover plan has the support of most environmental groups in South Florida. But the airport plan has its own core of supporters, led by Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

The federal government has two basic options. First it can turn over the base to Miami-Dade County for the airport, attaching various restrictions on its use to mitigate potential harm to the environment. The second option involves transferring control of the base from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Interior, allowing Interior officials to negotiate directly with the Collier-Hoover team. (There also are myriad variations on these two options, including a King Solomon approach: Split the base in half and give each side a share.) Technically the decision rests with the secretary of the air force, but many involved in the process believe Homestead's fate lies within the White House.

David Ritz, president of the Ocean Reef Community Association, has vowed to raise millions to fight 
the proposed airport
Steve Satterwhite
David Ritz, president of the Ocean Reef Community Association, has vowed to raise millions to fight the proposed airport
Alan Farago: The Ocean Reef community has invested a small fortune in his efforts to kill the airport plan
Steve Satterwhite
Alan Farago: The Ocean Reef community has invested a small fortune in his efforts to kill the airport plan

After years of sparring between airport proponents and opponents, the main event appears to be imminent, and it is shaping up to be a heavyweight bout.

This past February 1, as chartered buses idled outside South Dade Senior High School, nearly 1000 people gathered inside for the first public hearing on the draft version of the SEIS. Among those who had arrived early to testify was David Ritz, president of the Ocean Reef Community Association. The Ocean Reef Club is an exclusive enclave of approximately 1900 homes at the tip of north Key Largo, roughly twelve miles southeast of the air base. Residents were so concerned about the proposed airport that more than 100 of them turned out for the meeting, piling into buses for the trip from their island retreat to the high school. "Some of these folks had probably never been in public transportation before," laughs Alan Farago, an environmentalist recently hired by the Ocean Reef group to fight the airport plan.

They also weren't accustomed to the way they were about to be treated.

Ritz says that even though he and the other Ocean Reef residents arrived early and were among the first to place their names on the speakers' list, it soon became apparent that the list meant nothing, and that the order of speakers was being controlled by those who supported the airport proposal. "Penelas had lined up 25 politicians, every tin-horn politician from Aventura to South Miami," Farago recalls. "And they dominated the public testimony for hours."

Adds Ritz: "They obviously had no interest in hearing from the public. It was very frustrating."

"It was a rigged deal from the start," says Rich Miller, an Ocean Reef resident since 1981. "People got tired of it after a while, and we decided to leave. But I realized we had to do something. We had to get organized. That meeting really turned people on to the issue. It energized this community big-time."

"People were motivated," Ritz agrees.

As the Ocean Reef contingent climbed back into their buses for the ride home, Farago couldn't have been happier. "They saw what was going on with their own eyes," he recounts. "They were subjected to being heckled and booed. It was pretty nauseating. And that turned the tide. As Ocean Reef filed out, I knew we were going to win. Penelas and [Homestead Mayor] Steve Shiver and the other airport backers had totally misread their opposition as just a group of fringe environmentalists."

According to Farago the airport boosters had committed a fatal error: They'd pissed off a bunch of very wealthy people. Within weeks of that meeting, members of the Ocean Reef Community Association approved a plan to assess themselves fees and build a two-million-dollar war chest to battle the airport. "We realized we shouldn't let this process continue," Ritz says. Their first act was to hire Farago and keep him working full-time through a group he formed called the Everglades Defense Council. His contracts with Ocean Reef total $250,000.

For the past five years Farago, who is 46 years old, had been challenging the airport plan as a volunteer for the Miami chapter of the Sierra Club. His vigorous activity eventually led to him becoming a spokesman for the organization on that particular issue.

When HABDI attorney Ramon Rasco learned of Farago's high-paid position representing Ocean Reef, he claimed it constituted a conflict of interest with respect to his Sierra Club role. In response to that charge, Farago withdrew as the environmental group's spokesman. But that hasn't stopped Rasco from criticizing Farago and the Ocean Reef Club residents. "There are some big-money interests that, for one reason or another, are paying environmentalists to scare the people of South Florida that HABDI is going to ruin the bay and ruin the Everglades," Rasco grumbles. "And they know that this is a lie."

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