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.

Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver contends that the Ocean Reef crowd is elitist and only lives in South Florida during the winter months. "They are snowbirds," he asserts, "and they are insensitive to the needs of this community." Shiver also notes that some Ocean Reef residents don't want their money used to fight the airport and have sued to stop the community association from collecting more money. "There is a major rift in paradise," he quips. "They don't even agree."

Regarding his financial arrangement with Ocean Reef, Farago is unapologetic. The compensation is fair and necessary, he says. In order to devote his attention to the project full-time, he was forced to take a leave of absence from his job as a financial analyst. And while he has always believed the proposed airport represents a serious threat to the environment, he also acknowledges there is a not-in-my-back-yard element (NIMBY) at work among some Ocean Reef residents. Obviously they don't want jet planes flying over their expensive homes, ruining their tranquility. "Yeah, it's a NIMBY issue," Farago admits, "but the people who are there, in the dealings I've had with them, I feel very comfortable that they understand the big picture. They understand that the money they are giving is not only going to help preserve their quality of life, but it is also going to protect the national parks."

"The reason people move here," says resident Rich Miller, "is because they want to be close to nature and the parks. This is why we all came here to begin with."

Even if Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas wanted to dump HABDI, he couldn't
Even if Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas wanted to dump HABDI, he couldn't
Environmentalists worry that Democrats such as Al Gore and Bob Graham may ultimately betray them
AP/Wide World Photo
Environmentalists worry that Democrats such as Al Gore and Bob Graham may ultimately betray them

Typically, Farago relates, environmentalists are hopelessly outspent in these sorts of fights. HABDI, through its own shell committee called the Equal Justice Coalition, spent approximately $960,000 between July 1, 1999, and June 30, 2000, on the high-powered Washington lobbying firm of Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson and Hand, whose partners include former U.S. senators Bob Dole and George Mitchell. In addition to their own lobbyists, HABDI can count on Miami-Dade County to spend taxpayer money on its own lobbyists to press its case in Washington.

The money from Ocean Reef is intended to balance the scales. "I wouldn't say we've leveled the playing field," says Ritz. "What we are able to do is give the environmentalists a reasonable chance."

On October 5 a funny thing happened to county Commissioner Javier Souto on his way to that day's commission meeting: He got stuck in traffic. South Florida was still reeling from the no-name storm that had drenched the area two days earlier, and Souto was unable to easily navigate his car through the flooded roads. He ended up being more than two hours late to the meeting. By the time he made it to county hall, he was incensed.

Soon after Souto arrived, the commission took up a controversial proposal to extend the urban development boundary line, which is designed to prevent developers from pushing farther and farther west toward the Everglades. A proposed 1400-home housing development known as Lakes of the North was being planned west of Miami Lakes. The developer wanted to build 1400 homes on 413 acres of land between Interstate 75 and the Florida Turnpike. One of the chief beneficiaries of the project would have been the Graham Companies, which owned most of the land. The Graham Companies is owned by the family of Sen. Bob Graham.

Coming into the meeting, the attorneys for the developer appeared cocksure they would win. Tropical Audubon's Don Chinquina recalls spotting Bill Graham -- the senator's nephew and president of the Graham Companies -- in the front row, brimming with confidence. They needed seven votes to break the boundary line and allow the development to proceed. Commissioners Dorrin Rolle, Miriam Alonso, Bruno Barreiro, Natacha Seijas, Pedro Reboredo, and Jimmy Morales were all onboard with the plan. The developers needed one more, and they felt certain they had their seventh vote in Souto.

But then Souto began recounting his harrowing drive earlier that day. He questioned whether the county should expand the development boundary when it was having so much difficulty maintaining the infrastructure of existing neighborhoods. It was as if, through the divine intervention of a severe rainstorm, Souto now understood the concerns of the environmental community. Chinquina recalls with a chuckle: "When Souto started off, I was sitting behind Bill Graham, and the look on his face -- it was as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing."

Once Souto made his feelings known, the developer withdrew his request.

For environmentalists the episode was revealing in a couple of ways. First it demonstrated that miracles are possible. But it also highlighted the darker side of the Graham family business.

In 1962 the Grahams began converting their land holdings -- five and a half square miles of cattle pasture -- into the planned community of Miami Lakes. Many family members, including Sen. Bob Graham, continue to live there. Meticulously maintained and highly regulated (one Democratic insider calls it "Grahamville," a reference to the family's tight control over civic affairs), the community's mixed-use design and hometown feel has won high praise from urban planners.

It has also proved to be enormously lucrative for the Grahams. Family-owned land valued at $50 per acre in 1948 now sells for more than $350,000 per acre. Because the Graham Companies is privately held, detailed financial information is not available to the public, though some analysts estimate the company's annual revenue to be well in excess of $75 million. According to his most recent financial disclosure forms, Sen. Bob Graham describes his private holdings, most of which stem from the Graham Companies, as having a value of between $1.9 million and $6.8 million. (Senate rules do not require him to be more specific.)

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