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.

Farago doubts Berger's claims of impartiality, calling them "disingenuous at best. If that's true," he says, "then he does a better job of compartmentalizing than Bill Clinton."

Using history as a measure, Miami-Dade County officials are optimistic the federal government will turn over the deed to Homestead Air Force Base so HABDI can convert it to a commercial airport. In recent years there have been 32 military base closings in which the local government, in this case Miami-Dade County, asked for the land. In every case the federal government complied with those requests.

Tropical Audubon Society executive director Don Chinquina suspects Sen. Bob Graham is protecting his interests in Miami Lakes
Steve Satterwhite
Tropical Audubon Society executive director Don Chinquina suspects Sen. Bob Graham is protecting his interests in Miami Lakes

Increasing the likelihood of a transfer to the county, negotiations between the federal government and the Collier family have been unproductive. At issue is the value of the Colliers' mineral rights allowing them to drill for oil and gas in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Negotiations have been private, but sources familiar with the preliminary discussions say the two sides are far apart, with the Colliers estimating their mineral rights to be worth between $600 million and $800 million, and the Department of the Interior placing the figure between $100 million and $200 million.

Bob Duncan, general manager for the Collier Resources Company, says the family is waiting to see the final outcome of the supplemental environmental impact statement before entering into serious negotiations. "I think the success of those negotiations will be a function of how much each side wants to get the deal done," Duncan says. "This is clearly a very political animal."

While the contents of the SEIS will play a crucial role in negotiations, the timing of its release could be even more critical. Federal law mandates a 30-day "cooling off" period following release of the report. During that time no decision on the future of the base can be announced. If the SEIS is released in the next several days, as some expect, a decision could be made public sometime between Christmas and the new year. Sources close to the process point out that most people are distracted during that time by the holidays and family affairs, which would provide cover for a presidential administration seeking to avoid major publicity and potential political problems resulting from whichever decision is made.

Uncertainties regarding who will be the next president -- and what difficulties he may face trying to govern -- could put added pressure on the Clinton administration to make a decision about Homestead before its term expires on January 20, 2001. Doing so during the holiday period could muffle the objections sure to be raised by one side or the other.

If one thing is absolutely certain, though, it is this: No matter which way the decision goes, the future of the base will be tied up in court for years to come. "If it is conveyed as a commercial airport in any form, there will be a lawsuit," Farago promises. Confirming that vow, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an activist environmental group based in New York City, says it is ready to go to court to block the proposed airport.

Likewise, if the federal government refuses to turn over the land to Miami-Dade County, both the county and HABDI could attack the decision through litigation. HABDI has an obvious financial incentive to do so. The company already has invested a substantial amount of money in the project, says attorney Ramon Rasco. "Over $5 million, probably well over $10 million," he estimates. "Whether it is $20 million or $30 million, I don't know."

Lost somewhere amid all the wrangling are the people of South Miami-Dade. "Homestead has been the most affected and the least influential in this entire process," complains Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver. "We didn't support the way Miami-Dade County gave away this base in a no-bid deal. We were pretty vocal against that, but again, nobody listened to us."

After the commissioners made their decision, however, Shiver supported efforts to move ahead with the HABDI plan for the good of the people in his community. "We need jobs," he says.

Supporters of the proposed airport say it will create more than 30,000 jobs, compared with about 23,000 under the Collier-Hoover plan. Shiver says he isn't persuaded by Collier-Hoover numbers. "They have not produced one feasibility or marketing study to support what their impact will be," he notes.

County Commissioner Katy Sorenson believes the real danger for the residents of South Miami-Dade isn't the difference between 23,000 and 30,000 jobs. The real danger is creating an airport that will jeopardize the quality of life for area residents. "I think there is a certain element that wants to promote a depressed attitude because they want to create the justification for an airport," she says. "That has been the strategy used by the big land owners in South Dade, the bankers who represent them, and the chamber people who are associated with them. They want to perpetuate an attitude: ďPoor us, we'd better have an airport or we'll never get back on our feet economically.' The fact is that the alternative proposed by the Colliers and the Hoovers provides something that would happen so much faster."

Who Owns HABDI?

Since being awarded the no-bid deal in 1996, Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., has undergone changes in ownership, the biggest being the inclusion of a group known as Airport Acquisitions, Inc., which is owned by members of the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa. Airport Acquisitions now owns approximately 27 percent of HABDI, according to material the company provided the county in 1999.

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