Hip hip hooray. The Homestead airport is dead. For now, at least.

The rationale for rejecting Homestead Air Force Base as the site for a new commercial airport was both forceful and unambiguous. "Special circumstances exist regarding the Homestead property," the U.S. Air Force concluded. "It is proximate to and located between two national parks. The parks are under assault from urbanization and other pressures. There is a huge national and state investment being made in protecting and restoring the South Florida ecosystem. These circumstances heighten the stakes for making sound environmental decisions related to Homestead and tip the balance in favor of the parks where it is possible to do so without abandoning other important goals....

"Given all of this, the air force will not allow the environmental impacts of a commercial airport in this unique location between two national parks when other viable alternatives for economic development and jobs exist."

In essence the government determined a commercial airport would be both "inappropriate" and pose "unacceptable risks" to Biscayne and Everglades national parks.

The Homestead runway will be a temptation for years to come
Steve Satterwhite
The Homestead runway will be a temptation for years to come

"The air force does not take this action lightly, but we are firmly convinced that it is the right result. This decision strikes the proper balance between the federal interests in economic development in South Florida and the desire to protect to the greatest extent reasonable the national treasures represented in the two parks."

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who spent most of the past eight years fighting off the proposed airport, and members of the local environmental community commemorated the decision by uncorking bottles of champagne to toast their victory at a hastily called press conference last week inside the county government center.

There was indeed reason to celebrate. Their crusade was an epic battle few believed they could win. But in moments of triumph it also is important to be honest. This was not a total victory. Despite the language used by the air force, the door is not completely closed to an airport in the future.

Back in 1994 it was envisioned that the entire base, except for a small portion operated by an air force reserve unit, would be transferred to the county. That amounted to more than 1600 acres, including the runway, which the reserve unit would be allowed to use as a condition of the transfer. The air force now has decided to keep most of the base for itself. Even the runway will remain the property of the Department of Defense. The air force is offering the remaining land, slightly more than 700 acres, to Miami-Dade County. The county would then be required to develop that parcel in ways that would stimulate the local economy: hotels, office buildings, tourist attractions. Any plan would have to meet strict environmental standards to mitigate potential harm to the nearby parks. One proposal that already has survived scrutiny is the so-called Collier-Hoover plan, which calls for developing the base into an office park and retail complex, also featuring a resort hotel with two golf courses, research and educational facilities, and a large aquarium.

Here is the danger in the air force's decision: It leaves open the possibility that years from now a fight over the fate of the runway may have to be waged all over again. For instance in five or ten years, a new base-closure commission could recommend shutting down the military base in Homestead. The runway and the land the air force is retaining for the reserve unit would be up for grabs, and Miami-Dade County could once again request it for use as an airport. Depending upon who is in the White House, such a request could seem reasonable.

Many of the same environmentalists who hailed the air force's decision last week were warning only a month ago that this specific decision would be a horrible mistake. "We are very skeptical that transferring this property to Miami-Dade County -- even with an effort to prohibit development of an airport -- can achieve these goals [of protecting the national parks]," the leaders of thirteen national environmental groups wrote to President Bill Clinton on December 22. "Conveyance of the property to Miami-Dade County, even with certain restrictions, keeps the airport proposal on the table. Our organizations doubt that commitments can be made as part of the air-force-to-county transfer that would reasonably assure that an airport will not be proposed for this site at some future date and that the uniquely located site would otherwise be developed without environmental damage."

Celebrations may be in order, but vigilance is still required.

A more pressing concern, however, is the short-term future of the 700 acres being offered to the county. In January 1996 the county commission, led by then-Commissioner Alex Penelas, bungled its first attempt at developing this surplus land by entering into a no-bid sweetheart contract with a group of politically influential developers known by the acronym HABDI. The commission didn't consider other potential uses for the land, nor did it solicit proposals from other interested developers. Since the air force now says the property cannot be used as an airport, the county's deal with HABDI is dead.

Rarely are we given second chances in life but that's exactly what the people of South Florida received last week. Commissioners now have an opportunity to start over and do things right. The county has 90 days to decide if it is willing to accept the land under the air force's conditions and then 180 days to develop an actual proposal for the base. If the county fails to meet either of these deadlines the property will be transferred to the Department of the Interior.

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