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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 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.
Since the air force announcement last week, Mayor Penelas has been acting like a peevish child who didn't get what he wanted for Christmas. He says he doesn't know what the county will do next. Maybe the county will sue the federal government, he shrugs, or maybe the county will reject the air force's offer and let the land go to the Department of the Interior. He bounces from one interview to another, acting as if the decision was so unexpected he hasn't considered the alternatives.
Miami-Dade County can ill afford a pouty mayor.
The first thing Penelas should do is abandon any hope that President George W. Bush will overturn the air force's decision. Some people believe that because a Homestead airport would be built by a group of powerful Cuban businessmen, a Republican administration would be predisposed to reverse the air force. But as far as Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother the president are concerned, these particular Cuban businessmen are personae non grata.
The largest shareholder in HABDI is the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa. The Bush brothers have not forgotten Mas Canosa's 1992 meeting with then-candidate Bill Clinton, from which Mas Canosa emerged saying Cuban Americans had nothing to fear from a Clinton presidency. The de facto endorsement undermined their father's chances of winning a second term in office. That perceived act of betrayal recently was repeated when Mas Canosa's son, as well as members of the Cuban American National Foundation, hosted a private meeting with Al Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, on the eve of the November election.
The Mas family has no chits to call in with either Jeb or George W. on behalf of HABDI. Furthermore it has been clear for months that George W. wants nothing to do with this matter. Governor Jeb all but begged Clinton to make the Homestead decision before leaving office so neither he nor his brother would have to get involved.
Moreover anyone who thinks Penelas will be handed Homestead as a Republican reward for turning his back on Gore during the campaign misreads the political landscape. Whatever goodwill Penelas has developed with Republicans will be used to help him create a strong-mayor form of government in Miami-Dade County so he can run for another term. Penelas, after all, has nowhere else to go.
The air force decision is not going to be reversed by the new administration. Nor is it likely to be overturned in the courts. If Penelas joins in HABDI's lawsuit against the federal government, he will end up wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money. No judge is going to order the federal government to place a major commercial airport in Homestead.
Commissioner Sorenson says it's time to move forward and will ask her colleagues to accept the land with the no-airport provision, then immediately begin preparing a request for proposals. Even though the Collier-Hoover plan has been endorsed by a wide array of politicians and environmental groups, Sorenson says it would be wrong simply to award the base to that group. "After all these years of arguing against the no-bid decision to give the base to HABDI, it would be hypocritical of me now to say we should offer it to the Collier-Hoover team without any competitive bidding," she explains. "This is what we should have done years ago. Let's choose from an assortment of ideas and proposals and let the best plan emerge. But we have to do it quickly. We can't waste time."
One final piece of business. Leaders in the environmental community should temper their rhetoric regarding the nomination of Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior. At the very least they need to be a little smarter regarding their approach to her.
A couple of weeks ago, during the Everglades Coalition's annual meeting, I asked a few questions: Did the coalition have a position on Norton's nomination? Did anyone know if Norton had ever made any statements regarding the Everglades? Did anyone know if Norton had even visited the Everglades?
The response was confused. The coalition wasn't sure what, if anything, it was going to say about Norton, though individual members of the coalition, such as the Sierra Club, already had vowed to fight her nomination. As far as my other questions, no one knew the answer.
It appears Norton will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. I and others may disagree with many of her views, but she cannot simply be written off as the enemy, especially when it comes to the Everglades. As far as the River of Grass is concerned, she's an empty vessel waiting to be filled. "She is not as extreme or as crazy as some people have described her," says Joe Browder, a long-time Everglades activist who runs a Washington-based political-consulting firm specializing in environmental issues. "She is not the kind of person who is going to be inflammatory or take joy in beating environmental organizations or speak in dramatic terms about how evil environmentalists are, the way her mentor, Jim Watt, used to. She is broader-minded than that and smarter than that. It is a mistake to label her as one of the right-wing crazies.
"From an environmentalist's standpoint, it's hard to imagine a Republican administration trying to find an Interior Secretary acceptable to the conservatives of the Rocky Mountain West better than Gale Norton."
The Everglades Coalition can either demonize her or reach out to her. History suggests it would be better served by the latter, a case in point being the battle 30 years ago over the proposed jetport in the Everglades. Richard Nixon's Interior Secretary, Walter Hickel, was opposed during his confirmation hearings by every environmental group in the nation. But soon after being confirmed, he took an official trip to the Everglades, a place he knew nothing about but quickly came to appreciate. As a result he helped to kill the jetport.
Earlier this month Clinton's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told me he first visited the Everglades in the Eighties, while he was running for president. "It confirmed my view at the time that there was nothing much to care about east of the Rocky Mountains," Babbitt said with a wry smile. "It's an acquired taste." In time, he noted, he too came to prize its beauty and so applied himself to stopping the Homestead airport.
The sooner Norton travels to South Florida the better. Like Hickel and Babbitt before her, she'll be looking for projects that will improve her image within the environmental community. Given that state and federal governments have committed nearly eight billion dollars over the next 30 years to Everglades restoration, jumping on that bandwagon could be easy for her. She might actually turn out to be an important ally. And who knows, there may come a time in the future when environmentalists will need her help battling yet another effort to turn that bothersome Homestead runway into a commercial airport.