Not long ago a group of politically connected builders seemed to have a lock on developing a commercial airport at the old Homestead Air Force Base, a 1632-acre tract located between two national parks in South Miami-Dade County.
But after nearly two years of preparation, the U.S. Air Force next week will distribute to several federal agencies an environmental study on the land's future. Strikingly it will include not only an analysis of the airport scheme -- concocted by a group called Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (HABDI) -- but also an alternative that once seemed impossible: a plan pitched by one of South Florida's oldest clans, the Collier family, for a mixed commercial and residential development. The Colliers' idea has caught on with environmentalists. And it could help extricate presidential hopeful Al Gore from a very sticky political situation.
"The Collier proposal points out the obvious: that the commercial airport is not going to happen," says Alan Farago, conservation chair for the Sierra Club Miami Group. "There needs to be an alternative and it has to get people out of this political box." Farago says he won't endorse the Collier idea without more details. He wants several concessions, including a guarantee that environmentally sensitive lands will be protected.
In 1993 officials from the Department of Defense, which owns the former air force base, promised a quick transfer of the property to the county. They hoped to aid the South Miami-Dade economy, which had been battered by Hurricane Andrew. Three years later the county commission, without studying other proposals, awarded a 70-year contract to HABDI. The group envisioned a major commercial hub with tens of thousands of flights per year and two runways. That far exceeded the scope of the federal government's 1994 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which was required before the base could be transferred to the county.
Activists forced the government in February 1998 to start a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to explore the HABDI development's effect on issues such as pollution and urban sprawl. (The SEIS simply evaluates various options. It does not include recommendations.) What was to be a quick transfer of land has taken six years.
Now air force officials say the SEIS could be ready for public comment by late November. In May a preliminary draft was circulated to the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. During the five months that follwed, the document changed in several significant ways, according to officials involved in the process. The latest version takes a harder look at the impact of airport noise on Biscayne and Everglades national parks, located respectively two and ten miles away. It also explores four possibilities: plans by HABDI and the Colliers as well as proposals for a wetlands park/aquarium and a commercial spaceport. Of the three options besides HABDI's, the Collier plan is the most detailed.
"Before we came along there was no other alternative," says Roy Cawley, a consultant to the Colliers. "Our best case scenario is that the SEIS comes out, and it says that [the Collier development] is one of the best uses."
What might make the Collier plan particularly attractive to both environmentalists and government officials is that it involves a swap. The Colliers, for whom Collier County is named, will trade some of their mineral rights in the Big Cypress National Preserve for a portion of the base. The family had held on to those rights when it deeded the property to the government in 1974.
"If the Collier proposal goes through, Big Cypress clearly benefits by having many of the most sensitive parts of the swamp protected from oil exploration," says Joe Browder, an environmental consultant who has spent decades working to protect the preserve.
The Colliers envision a twenty-year development project on 717 acres that would include 1,762,000 units of office space, a 36-hole golf course, a water park, and 1020 hotel rooms. They estimate the project will produce 17,400 jobs. Cawley believes the proposal represents a compromise between developmental and environmental interests. He also contends it would quickly aid South Miami-Dade's economy, which still lags behind much of the county.
Environmentalists have threatened a prolonged fight against the HABDI airport. "The people of Homestead are laboring under the misguided position that [HABDI will provide] 10,000 jobs overnight, which is ridiculous," says a source close to the Colliers.
HABDI officials insist they are unconcerned. "The Collier [plan] has probably peaked already," claims Miguel DeGrandy, a HABDI spokesman and former state representative. "It is starting to lose momentum."
Although the Colliers have pondered the idea of swapping mineral rights for years, the proposal only emerged as a possible contender to the HABDI airport this past January, when a family representative unveiled the concept at an Everglades Coalition conference. Since then Collier representatives have had numerous meetings with local politicians and Department of the Interior officials.
This past July environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, and the National Audubon Society, sent a joint letter to the White House and the Department of the Interior urging that officials analyze the Collier proposal and the wetlands park in the SEIS. The letter stated that a mixed-use alternative such as the Collier proposal could end the stalemate over the base.
"The federal government -- and the State of Florida -- should seize this opportunity to demonstrate that protection and restoration of South Florida's internationally renowned ecosystem can go hand in hand with economic development," the letter concludes. "We truly believe that [the air base]'s redevelopment now presents a possible win-win situation for the federal and state governments."
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The controversy surrounding the air base could also affect the presidential race. In mid-September the environmental group Friends of the Earth endorsed former Sen. Bill Bradley rather than Vice President Al Gore. The group's selection exposed an unexpected weakness for the vice president, who bills himself as an environmental leader and needs campaign contributions from greens. Gore's stand on the air base could become an issue in California, where ecological issues are particularly important.
In the past Gore has made repeated pledges to defend the Everglades and Florida's other natural resources. "The vice president has created expectations and it may seem unfair to him now that people want those expectations lived up to, but he is the one who made those promises," argues environmental consultant Joe Browder.
Gore supporter Mayor Alex Penelas may also find a way to duck blame if the Colliers win out. This won't be easy because Penelas has been a vocal supporter of HABDI. But on May 14, county attorneys Tim Abbott and Gail Fels concluded that the federal government could legally transfer the base to the Colliers without county approval. Now Penelas can legitimately argue he has done everything possible for HABDI, which includes many of his staunchest political supporters.