Enough's Enough

Will the county risk Homestead's future on a no-win lawsuit? Find out on Tuesday.

For more than two months, Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver has assured commissioners that suing the federal government over its refusal to permit Homestead Air Force Base to be developed as a commercial airport would not adversely affect the county's chances of taking title to the airport even if the lawsuit fails.

But a document recently obtained by New Times casts doubt on those assurances. In a letter sent to Shiver last month, a senior defense department official warned the manager that "conversations between us may be affected by the pending litigation." Despite the sensitive nature of the letter, and despite the stated desire of commissioners to be kept informed of all developments relating to the air base, Shiver has told them nothing about it.

The letter, dated April 2, came from Albert F. Lowas, Jr., director of the Air Force Base Conversion Agency. Lowas was writing what should have been a form letter acknowledging a March 16 communication from Shiver. In his letter the manager had notified the agency that the county would be applying to receive the air-base land as an "economic development conveyance" (known as an EDC and under whose terms a commercial airport would be prohibited) while also filing a lawsuit in hopes of forcing the government to allow Miami-Dade to develop the land as an airport.

Rather than simply acknowledging receipt of Miami-Dade's intentions, Lowas decided to chide the county as well. "The air force is ready to assist the county with the EDC application to the extent desired by the county," Lowas wrote. "However, since the county has also sued the air force ... whether our help will be sought is unclear, and conversations between us may be affected by the pending litigation.

"We regret that the county thought it desirable to sue us," he continued. "The existence of the county's lawsuit adds an unnecessary element to our relationship, and we hope that the county will decide soon to pursue more cooperative and productive approaches. Though we are continuing to cooperate as fully as we can, we look forward to being able to work with the county under better circumstances."

Contacted last week, Lowas said he would let the letter speak for itself.

Shiver's failure to alert commissioners to the letter wasn't the first time he misled them regarding Homestead Air Force Base. On March 8 he told the commission to ignore a Homestead City Council resolution urging the county to accept the 717 acres of land at the base and develop it as something other than a commercial airport. Shiver informed commissioners that the Homestead City Council action was irrelevant because council members didn't understand all the options and that both Homestead's mayor and vice mayor regretted voting for the resolution.

In fact the Homestead City Council was well aware of the alternatives and, in a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush last month, reaffirmed its position that Miami-Dade should drop its lawsuit along with its hopes for an airport and accept the land as an economic conveyance. (The county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust recently initiated an investigation into Shiver's conduct during that March 8 meeting. Several people, including Homestead Mayor Roscoe Warren, have been questioned under oath by investigators.)

Last week federal Judge Paul Friedman roundly rejected the county's efforts to overturn government-imposed restrictions banning a commercial airport at the base. Friedman refused to grant the county's request for a preliminary injunction against the air force. In his sixteen-page decision the judge repeatedly declared that the county has little chance of ultimately succeeding with its lawsuit. The court decision was hailed by environmentalists opposed to the county's plans for an airport, which they believe would endanger Biscayne and Everglades national parks.

As a result of the decision, Katy Sorenson will ask her fellow commissioners on Tuesday, May 22, to drop the lawsuit and move ahead with the EDC. "We didn't have much of a case at all," says Sorenson. "Our own attorney told us as much before we even filed the lawsuit. And now the judge has made it clear there is no merit to this action. We need to stop litigation and go forward with the EDC. Any further litigation at this point is just political grandstanding."

In order for Miami-Dade to receive the property, federal law requires that a detailed plan be presented within 180 days of Shiver's March 16 letter to Lowas. The clock was suspended for 30 days while the county sought its preliminary injunction, but now it's running again. By the time commissioners meet next Tuesday, they will have just 143 days to complete a comprehensive plan for developing Homestead Air Force Base into something other than a commercial airport.

In those 143 days commissioners must decide if they want to hire outside consultants to help guide them through the process. Then they must approve a "request for proposals" (RFP) inviting private businesses to submit their own ideas for developing the land. The RFP must spell out precisely what the commission is looking for and the criteria on which the proposals will be evaluated. Will there be a preference given to local developers? Will there be a requirement for minority participation in the project? Must the proposals include financing options? Guarantees as to the number of jobs being created?

Once the RFP is approved, it has to be advertised, not just locally but nationally, and an adequate amount of time provided for developers to prepare their proposals. The county will need to impanel a committee to review the submissions, rank them, and then present them to commissioners for consideration. The county also will need to negotiate a lease with the winning developer. That lease then must be discussed and approved by commissioners.

All this in 143 days.

Federal rules do allow for a single 60-day extension of the application period, but that is at the discretion of the air force. Even with an extension, the timetable will be tight. Let's not forget this is the same county government that took more than five years to put together an RFP for something as trivial as wrapping airport luggage in plastic.

If the county truly wants to spark economic development in South Miami-Dade, it must concentrate all its efforts on the EDC application. Shiver claims county officials are working on the application, but with more than 30 days already run off the clock, there's little to show for the effort.

Make no mistake, if county commissioners decide to continue the lawsuit, they will endanger the entire conveyance. For one thing they risk further alienating air force officials, the very people who will accept or reject the county's application for the land. In addition few developers will spend the money to create a proposal if the property's future is clouded by a lawsuit. The county's own attorney, Robert Cuevas, argued before Judge Friedman that such uncertainty needed to be resolved quickly. The judge scoffed at that reasoning. "To the extent that the litigation has created uncertainty," he wrote, "the county itself has helped create that uncertainty by initiating the litigation." In other words if the lawsuit screws up the chances for the county to develop the land under an EDC, it will have no one to blame but itself.

The only party unequivocally committed to keeping the lawsuit alive is HABDI, the politically influential company that was handed a no-bid deal to develop the base as an airport. Without an airport at the Homestead base, HABDI's dreams of riches will be dead.

But even HABDI's attorneys must now realize a lawsuit alone won't work. Litigation is merely a stalling tactic. Through its lobbyists, HABDI is trying to pressure the Bush administration to do what Judge Friedman refused to do: reverse the air force decision and allow the air base to be developed as a commercial airport.

According to the most recent disclosure forms on file in Washington, HABDI spent $300,000 on lobbyists from July 1, 2000, to December 31, 2000. This is in addition to $960,000 spent during the previous twelve months. All that money -- $1.26 million in eighteen months -- was used to pressure the Clinton administration. We won't know for several months how much HABDI has spent so far targeting the new Bush White House.

During the hearing before Judge Friedman, HABDI's attorney, Ignacio Sanchez, argued with unintended irony that the air force's decision to prohibit an airport was based not on the merits but on politics. Friedman brushed that aside, as he did every other argument made by HABDI and the county. Next week we'll see if county commissioners have gotten the message.

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