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"I need a drink."
Walking out of the ballroom, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was feeling a little parched after speaking to more than 400 environmentalists Friday evening at the sixteenth annual conference of the Everglades Coalition.
The coalition, composed of more than 40 environmental groups across the nation, was meeting on Hutchinson Island, near Stuart. This year's conference celebrated the recently passed landmark legislation that commits nearly eight billion dollars in state and federal funds to the restoration of the Everglades. Not surprisingly the future of Homestead Air Force Base was a major subject of concern. In the coming days, President Bill Clinton is expected to announce whether he will transfer the base, which was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, to Miami-Dade County for use as a commercial airport.
Environmentalists vehemently oppose the development of an airport in Homestead, noting that the base sits between Everglades and Biscayne national parks. They want the base turned over to the Interior Department, which could then convey control of the land to a more environmentally friendly developer. The main alternative to the airport is a project known as the Collier-Hoover plan, which calls for developing the base as an office park with retail outlets, a resort hotel with two golf courses, research and educational facilities, and a large aquarium.
Addressing the crowd Friday evening, Babbitt warned he was not there to make a major announcement and that the decision was still in the hands of the president. "You know where I stand on this issue," he said. "Homestead is not the appropriate place for an airport, period. Homestead is a chance to enhance the economy of South Dade with a thoughtful, careful, community-involved mixed-use development which will bring great credit upon all of South Florida."
After his speech Babbitt adjourned to a nearby bar with several reporters. Even with a Budweiser in hand, he was no less forthcoming about predicting an outcome for Homestead. As he put it: "My obligation to the president, who has been exceedingly generous to me and who has followed an awful lot of my advice over the last five years, is to say, “I've made my case, and I'm going to keep my peace and let him make a decision.' I don't mean to be coy. That's just where I'm at."
As my colleagues and I poked and prodded to try to ask the same question a different way, Babbitt remained steadfast. "There's nothing more to say," he shrugged. "I'm a loyal member of this administration, and I want to give the president the space he's entitled to."
I told Babbitt there were those who took his reticence as a good sign, considering how outspoken he had been in the past on this subject. If he believed the president was leaning toward allowing an airport to be developed in Homestead, then he'd have used his speech before the Everglades Coalition as a way of turning up the pressure on the president in a last-ditch effort to change his mind.
And so for those trying to read tea leaves, I said, his silence was considered a good omen, suggesting he believed he was going to prevail and therefore didn't want to say something that might embarrass or anger the White House, causing the president to change his mind.
"No comment," Babbitt said with a smile.
In April 1998 Bill Nelson, who at the time was the state's insurance commissioner, voted as a member of the governor's cabinet to approve the initial plans developing the air base into a commercial airport. The cabinet's decision was struck down eight months later, when a judge ruled it had acted prematurely and that environmental concerns had to be addressed before the cabinet could vote on the project.
On Saturday Nelson was the keynote speaker at the Everglades Coalition luncheon. It was his first official public appearance in the state since being sworn in as a United States senator. During his senate campaign Nelson reversed his earlier position and came out against the airport development. He reiterated that position on Saturday. "I oppose Homestead airport," he declared to thunderous applause.
In an interview after the luncheon, Nelson said his 1998 vote to support the airport was based on a "totally different set of facts that were presented" at that time. He said he was led to believe by Miami-Dade County officials that the number of flights into and out of the proposed airport would be limited. "That was what was before the cabinet, in not a final plan but a conceptual plan," he said. The projections now call for more than 600 takeoffs and landings each day. "A major airport is going to cause all kinds of pollution and growth problems," he asserted. "The facts have dramatically changed, and that's why I oppose it. I support the Collier-Hoover alternative."
Supporters of the Collier-Hoover plan say they believe this is the first time Nelson has publicly endorsed their project.
The earliest that President Clinton can announce a decision on Homestead is Monday, January 15. The two options most often discussed are a transfer of the base to Miami-Dade County to develop as an airport, or a transfer of the base to the Interior Department to develop into something other than an airport.