Air Base Confidential

Packed into the conference room of Sen. Bob Graham's downtown Miami office, Miami-Dade County officials gathered two weeks ago for a meeting with attorneys from half a dozen federal agencies overseeing the transfer of Homestead Air Force Base. Among those present: Mayor Alex Penelas and several members of his staff, County Manager Armando Vidal and various county department directors, and Homestead's Mayor Steve Shiver and City Manager John Asmar. Listening in from Washington via speaker phone was Graham.

Very few people were supposed to know about that meeting. In fact, nothing was put in writing and participants were prohibited from taking notes in an effort to avoid having the press request materials through state or federal public records laws. "That was by design," says a source who was present. "It was all verbal. The feds didn't want anyone even talking about this meeting and warned that if news leaked out, the negotiations could be jeopardized."

According to six different sources who attended the November 25 gathering, Kathleen McGinty, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the president's chief adviser on environmental issues, explained that the federal government was strongly leaning toward further extensive study of the environmental consequences of developing the base. The study's resulting document, known as a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), would have to be evaluated before the base could be conveyed to the county. An SEIS would be necessary, McGinty said, because the original environmental impact statement, which was prepared by the air force in 1993, was deemed to be no longer adequate.

"It looked like they were going to drop the boom on us," says another source who was there. But then, sources say, McGinty explained that a final decision had not yet been made and that she wanted to give the county one last chance to comment.

Graham, Penelas, and Shiver were disheartened by the news that an SEIS seemed inevitable, and they tried to persuade McGinty and the other federal officials that their reasoning was flawed. More important, according to the sources who attended the meeting, the politicians argued that the decision to conduct another study would delay transfer of the base (and postpone its commercial development) in a way that would have a hugely detrimental economic impact on South Dade.

Graham, Penelas, and McGinty were unavailable for comment. Shiver would confirm only that no final decision had been made by the federal government. "My community really needs to hear something positive from the CEQ," Shiver says. "We are still discussing the matter."

Two subsequent meetings were held on December 1 and 2, discussions one county official describes this way: "It's our effort to beg, to plead, to get down on bended knee if we have to with the air force and the CEQ to convince them not to put us through an SEIS." Adds another source: "It's been an intense and healthy dialogue."

A final decision on an SEIS is expected to be announced before the end of the year.

At the November 25 meeting McGinty and air force lawyers explained why an SEIS appears to be necessary: The county's plans for the air base have radically changed over the past few years. When the air force conducted its original EIS, the county had provided the federal government with projections on how quickly the base would be developed and the number of commercial flights to be expected.

Only after that EIS was completed did the county select a developer for the base -- Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., better known by its acronym HABDI. (The selection of HABDI was made by the county commission without competitive bidding and without a review of other proposals.) HABDI proposed massive development at a much faster pace than the air force had counted on originally. One example: HABDI's aviation plans suggest that a second runway will be necessary.

Federal officials believe these new plans warrant a new study of their effects on the environment. Recounts one of the meeting participants: "The initial argument they made was that because the projections have so dramatically changed, they couldn't justify the results of the original EIS."

Another attendee summarizes: "If you have an EIS and you change your projected use, then you have to have an SEIS."

According to the various sources, county officials then did something startling: They attempted to distance themselves from HABDI by claiming that the development group's projections have not been adopted by the county. This new approach baffled some members of the federal team. "It was all very confusing," one of them concedes. "They were trying to say the developer they picked doesn't represent their view of the base."

A county official elaborates: "Our question was, 'What if we limited the use of the air base to what was covered by the original environmental impact statement?' But the feds argued that they couldn't just ignore HABDI's numbers because they are already out there in the public record."

McGinty and the government lawyers tried to relieve the pain of an SEIS by telling local officials they had already lined up a contractor and had estimated that the study could be completed in eighteen months.

The county, however, argued that an SEIS would delay base development for at least four years, not eighteen months. In addition to securing federal approval, the county must submit to state review, a process that is already well underway -- based on the original EIS. But if the federal government orders a supplemental study, the state can't legally use the first one either, county officials said. So the county would have to wait for the SEIS, then submit those results to Tallahassee and begin the state process anew. That review, they said, would take another two years.

Says one source involved in the discussion: "That's what is causing the feds heartburn right now. They were taken aback that everything could not go forward in tandem." Although the political implications of the pending SEIS decision were not discussed, this participant notes that if redevelopment of the base were put off for four years, it could have serious consequences in the year 2000 for both Vice President Al Gore, who will be running for president, and for Alex Penelas, who would be up for re-election. "If nothing is happening at that base," the source predicts, "then both Penelas and Gore are going to have a hard time winning votes down there."

Penelas and Graham are pressing McGinty and the air force to allow some form of limited development while further environmental review takes place, according to several sources. "I think they are going to find a way to allow something to happen out there," a county official asserts. One possibility being discussed would permit limited rebuilding of the air base's hurricane-damaged terminals, as well as a restricted number of commercial flights. They might also allow HABDI to proceed with plans for the construction of nonaviation structures such as office buildings to attract "high-tech industry to the area," according to the county official.

Not everyone is thrilled that these discussions are being held secretly. County Commissioner Katy Sorenson is angry that she had to learn about the meetings from a reporter and notes that neither she nor Commissioner Dennis Moss were asked to participate. "It's very odd that the elected commissioners who represent South Dade have not been invited to meetings on one of the most critical issues this county is facing," she says. "Who developed the guest list? Were they afraid we might be party poopers?" (County staffers claim the guest list was put together by Graham's office. A spokeswoman for Graham denies it.)

Last week a coalition of environmental groups wrote President Clinton requesting that the federal government move forward with a supplemental study. "On the eve of the upcoming 50th anniversary celebration of the establishment of Everglades National Park, we urge you to make a decision that will protect Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, and the entire South Florida region," the December 1 letter stated. Among those signing the letter were Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club; John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Ronald Tipton of the World Wildlife Fund; Stuart Strahl of the National Audubon Society; and Joette Lorion of Friends of the Everglades.

"An SEIS that takes the necessary hard look at the environmental impacts of the developers' proposed international 'hub' airport with two runways is a necessary predicate to making a decision that will impact the greater Everglades ecosystem for generations to come," the letter continued. "Taking this hard look now, before construction or operation of a commercial airport is phased in, is critical to ensuring that the right decision is made. If a commercial airport is allowed to proceed at Homestead, we believe a second runway is likely to become an inevitability for safety reasons, to meet predicted aviation demand, and to make the airport economically feasible."

The environmentalists also asked the White House to consider other options for rebuilding South Dade's economy. "It is not a question that South Dade needs economic redevelopment in the wake of Hurricane Andrew," the groups wrote. "The real question is what type of redevelopment project at Homestead Air Reserve Base will bring maximum prosperity to the region, what type of redevelopment will bring the highest-paying, most-skilled jobs, what type of redevelopment will best promote the long-term protection of the nearby national parks, which make South Florida such a desirable place to live and visit."

In a pointed jab at HABDI, the environmentalists added: "Certainly some people stand to gain from construction of an airport at Homestead, but those who stand to gain the most are not necessarily the people of Homestead."

Finally the environmentalists questioned whether Homestead is really the best location for a reliever airport for Miami International, and they urged the president to study other possible sites, including Opa-locka: "We believe that the only way to adequately determine where to site Dade County's next large commercial airport -- and for the federal government to satisfy its legal obligations -- is to conduct a comprehensive regional aviation services study."

Homestead Mayor Shiver rejects the environmentalists' suggestions. "Personally," he says, "I'd like to see the base conveyed with no restrictions whatsoever."

The Guest List
The following people participated in the November 25 meeting at Sen. Bob Graham's downtown Miami office

Elected officials
*Sen. Bob Graham (by speaker phone)
*Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas
*Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver

From the federal government
*Kathleen McGinty, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality
*Sally Ericsson, CEQ associate director for natural resources
*Sheila Cheston, air force general counsel
*Nancy McFadden, Department of Transportation general counsel
*William Leary, senior counselor, assistant secretary of the interior
*Gary Guzy, counselor, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency
*Neal McAliley, Department of Justice attorney

From the county
*Armando Vidal, county manager
*Gary Dellapa, aviation director
*Richard Mendez, aviation staff
*Sandy O'Neil, mayor's senior adviser
*Ari Lynn Turner, mayor's staff
*Virginia Sanchez, mayor's staff
*Blanca Mesa, mayor's staff
*Tom Robertson, county attorney's office
*Tim Abbott, county attorney's office
*Guillermo Olmedillo, planning, development, and regulation director
*John Renfrow, Department of Environmenta Resources Management director
*Carlos Espinoza, DERM assistant director
*Susan Markley, DERM staff
*Sue Alspach, DERM staff
*Terry Murphy, chief of staff, Commissioner Natacha Millan

*John Asmar, Homestead city manager
*Peggy Demon, chief of staff, Rep. Carrie Meek
*Ellen Roth, district representative, Sen. Bob Graham


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