Oops, Sorry, There Will Be No HABDI Investigation
On June 27, Sen. John Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island and chairman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, signed a letter asking the head of the General Accounting Office (GAO) to launch an immediate investigation into the environmental impact of Dade County's plan to transfer Homestead Air Force Base to a private developer. Meticulously outlining his concerns, Chafee noted that the base lies only 2500 feet from Biscayne Bay's Biscayne National Park and just a few miles from Everglades National Park. "These are two of America's most endangered national parks and the focal point of federal interest in ecosystem management in South Florida," Chafee wrote. "The Biscayne aquifer is the sole source of drinking water in South Florida."
Chafee also pointed out that "an investment of hundreds of millions of federal dollars" was being made to restore the Everglades, and it seemed foolish to spend such money while not knowing the adverse impact air base development might have on that project.
"It would be prudent to examine how the federal interest in ecosystem management and Everglades restoration is impacted, directly and indirectly, by reuse plans for the Homestead Air Reserve Base, and not limited to the issue of onsite pollution cleanup," Chafee continued. "I am therefore interested to know what specific actions have been taken through coordinated planning to protect the federal interest in advance of any development agreements for the base reuse. I am interested to know whether those actions are sufficient and whether water quality, storm-water management, and sustainable water supply -- key elements of sustainable economic development and Everglades restoration -- are guaranteed to be sufficient in their regional context through the conveyance of the Homestead Air Reserve Base and how the actions will be funded."
Adding an element of urgency to his request, Chafee explained that the federal government was on the verge of turning over the base to Dade County without having satisfactorily addressed any of these issues. "I am concerned whether safeguards exist to guarantee that disposition of this federal property will be accomplished in a manner consistent with the federal investment in ecosystem management and Everglades restoration," he wrote. "I would request that you complete this investigation as quickly as possible, and provide me with at least interim findings within 30 days."
When a signed copy of Chafee's letter was faxed to Alan Farago in his tiny Coral Gables office, the environmental activist says he was filled with a sense of hope that had otherwise been elusive over the past year. During those preceding twelve months, he had watched in frustration as county commissioners blithely awarded the base to a group of politically connected developers led by Carlos Herrera, president of the Latin Builders Association, a group whose ability to fill the campaign coffers of pliant politicians is legendary in South Florida.
In a rush to cater to Herrera and his partners (Camilo Jaime and Pedro Adrian), the county commission, without competitive bidding and without even soliciting other proposals, awarded the rights to develop nearly 2000 acres of the base to Herrera's Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., known by the acronym HABDI. At no point in the debate were environmental concerns raised.
But with Chafee ordering a formal inquiry (the GAO acts as the investigative arm of Congress), Farago believed these issues were finally going to be scrutinized. Within an hour of receiving the senator's letter, Farago had prepared a three-page press release and faxed it, along with a copy of Chafee's letter, to local media outlets and more than a hundred individuals and civic groups. "United States General Accounting Office to Investigate Conveyance of Homestead Air Reserve Base," blared the press release's headline. Farago was jubilant that evening as he left his one-man office, which serves as headquarters for the group he formed two years ago, the Alliance for Sustainable Communities.
The next morning, however, his elation turned to dejection. When he arrived at his office, he discovered a message on his answering machine from Chafee's office informing him that the senator had decided not to request a GAO investigation after all. That afternoon a letter arrived from Chafee.
"It has come to my attention that by press release dated June 27, 1996, your organization announced that I requested a GAO investigation of environmental impacts of the Homestead ARB conveyance," Chafee stated. "After writing a letter with the request to GAO, but before its delivery, I reconsidered my position and decided not to have the letter delivered.
"Regrettably, a copy of the draft was inadvertently provided to the Alliance before I made a final decision on whether or not to proceed. I am confident the environmental impacts of the conveyance will be considered by the appropriate authorities, and that a GAO investigation is not necessary at this time. I hope this clarification is helpful."
Nowhere in Chafee's GAO letter -- the one "inadvertently" sent to Farago -- did it indicate it was merely a draft. Not only did it bear the senator's signature, but Chafee had gone so far as to add a personal greeting to the head of the GAO, Charles Bowsher, in anticipation of Bowsher's receiving that very copy.
Chafee's sudden reversal on the issue is certainly intriguing, but it is made downright remarkable in light of the fact that the person most responsible for it was Florida's Democratic senator and supposed Everglades champion, Bob Graham. Chafee's staff confirms that after signing the letter requesting a GAO investigation -- but before it could be delivered -- Chafee spoke to both Graham and Florida Republican Sen. Connie Mack.
"Those discussions may have convinced him he was getting into an area that might be a little bit more complicated than he had initially thought," offers Steve Shimberg, chief staffer on the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. "Senator Chafee thought better of getting involved in a situation that he wasn't completely up to speed on."
Because Chafee was simply asking the GAO to investigate whether HABDI's development plans would conflict with the federal government's efforts to restore the Everglades, it is difficult to understand how his request for information and assurances would be, in Shimberg's words, "more complicated than he had initially thought." The complications appear to stem not from environmental considerations but rather from political ones. The myopia that has been so rampant among local and state officials regarding HABDI now seems to have spread as far as Washington, D.C.
Last month New Times reported that HABDI president Herrera, a registered Republican, has emerged as one of the Democratic Party's major campaign contributors, having donated more than $100,000 in the past year to the Democratic National Committee and Pres. Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. Those contributions and resulting party contacts have garnered Herrera access to the highest levels of the Clinton Administration, including a private meeting this past April with Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. The Federal Aviation Administration, under Pena, must approve HABDI's lease with Dade County in order for it to become final.
And now comes Sen. Bob Graham to help run interference for HABDI in the halls of Congress. While Chafee may have spoken to both Graham and Mack before deciding to shelve the GAO investigation, sources familiar with the discussions say it was Graham who persuaded Chafee to back off. But why would Chafee listen to a senator from the other side of the aisle? Although they don't share political affiliations, Chafee and Graham enjoy a long-standing friendship. Both are considered moderate voices in their respective parties, and each has developed a respectable reputation regarding environmental issues. A spokeswoman for Graham's office said the senator was on vacation with his family and could not be reached for comment.
It's not so difficult to understand why Graham would want to avoid a GAO investigation. A critical report would place him in a very difficult situation. If investigators decided that HABDI's plans for the base would have an adverse affect on Everglades restoration, Graham, who has publicly declared his support for the cleanup effort, could find himself obligated to intercede on behalf of the environmentalists. And that would almost certainly provoke the ire of both Herrera and South Dade business groups who see the air base development as the area's best shot at economic recovery. For Graham, the best GAO report is no GAO report.
With or without a formal congressional investigation, HABDI's environmental problems are apparent, argues Farago. The one that has received the most attention is the so-called military canal, which runs from the eastern edge of the air base to Biscayne National Park. For years the canal caught most of the storm water runoff from the base A the fuels, oils, and other contaminants associated with an airfield A and dumped it directly into the bay. The canal itself is so polluted that county officials say they are considering simply filling it in and trying to create another system for dealing with polluted runoff, but no firm plans or cost estimates have been developed.
A commercial and residential development on the scale that HABDI envisions, attracting tens of thousands of new residents to South Dade, would also dramatically affect the flow of rainwater on surrounding lands. When rain falls on an empty field, it is absorbed into the ground. Turn that field into a housing complex and the water -- along with the waste it collects -- must be channeled somewhere. "If those developments are east of U.S. 1," says Farago, "then that storm water is going to be pushed toward Biscayne National Park."
The issue of drinking water is another cause for concern. The more people who are attracted to South Dade, the greater the need for potable water, and the main well field for that part of the county is located just north of the base. "Whatever water we pull from those well fields simply drains freshwater out of the Everglades," Farago says.
Farago argues that the federal government should guarantee that these issues will be addressed before the base is conveyed to the county and HABDI. "Because the engine that is going to be driving this development is the air force base, the federal government has, in my opinion, a higher responsibility to make sure that before it transfers this piece of property its long-term goals of restoration of the environment are not going to be adversely affected," he says. "It's time to take the opportunity, with the disposition of this federal asset, to understand how we can create a more perfect world in South Florida. If we lose this opportunity, we may never have another one, because once the people are in place it is very difficult to be able to provide comprehensive planning for an area."
Farago is not alone in his belief. This past May 7 the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Working Group passed a resolution highly critical of Dade County and its plans for Homestead Air Force Base. The members of this federal group, appointed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and led by Col. Terry Rice of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is charged with, among other things, coordinating cleanup efforts in the Everglades. In its resolution, the group stated that "issues pertaining to growth and development in southern Dade County are not being addressed comprehensively but instead are seemingly being addressed in an ad hoc manner."
In response to the working group's resolution, the broad-based Everglades Coalition, in a May 17 letter to Babbitt, asked that the federal government delay transferring the air base to Dade County. "Our concern for environmental impacts to Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park has been raised to the status of alarm," wrote co-chairs Ronald Tipton, of the World Wildlife Fund, and Theresa Woody, of the Sierra Club. "It is now clear that local and state processes are insufficient to ensure that South Florida Everglades restoration efforts can be protected from massive regional development that will occur as a consequence of air base redevelopment, now in the planning stages."
Bolstered by the federal working group and the Everglades Coalition, as well as by a host of other environmental groups including Friends of the Everglades, the 42-year-old Farago has tried to bring some order back to the process of developing the air base. In the past, the arguments against HABDI have been rooted in the complaint that it was not fair to grant development rights to a single, politically powerful group without competitive bidding and without any real input from the public. But with that fight having been lost, Farago believes environmental issues must now be the rallying point. And he has the time and energy to devote to the cause.
His father, a Hungarian immigrant who survived Nazi work camps, settled in Rhode Island and started a manufacturing business that Farago and his brother eventually took over. The company was on the leading edge of fiber-optic technology; in 1988 Farago and his brother sold the business, which brought them enough money to retire in comfort. But rather than cruise the world, Farago, who is married and has three children, decided to use the freedom that money provides to become a civic activist. He became intensely interested in environmental issues in 1988 when he moved to Key West, and continued that interest when he settled in Dade County in 1992. He formed the Alliance for Sustainable Communities two years ago, concentrating on urban-planning issues, and has since developed a fax network of people and groups -- from the Friends of the Everglades to the Kendall Federation of Homeowners -- he keeps apprised of issues he thinks are important.
"I don't mind spending six hours at a county commission meeting waiting to speak for five minutes," says Farago, who also publishes the Urban Pioneer newsletter. "This is a way for me to pay back the incredible good fortune I've had. Not just for my sake but for my children's sake as well."
It was Farago's Rhode Island upbringing that brought him to Chafee's doorstep a few months ago. Farago's family has known the senator for many years, and his position as chairman of the environment committee made him a natural object of pleas for help. Farago says he spent weeks providing material on the Homestead issue to Chafee's staff. "Senator Chafee has been an environmental leader in Congress through his entire career," Farago notes. "He understood there is a national interest in making tax dollars work for taxpayers with respect to environmental protection."
Or at least Chafee used to believe that -- until Bob Graham explained to him just how complicated things are in South Florida.
"I still have the highest respect for Senator Chafee," says Farago, who continues to lobby the senator for a GAO investigation, "and I am confident that once all of the parties are fully informed about the necessity of a congressional GAO investigation, we can move forward in a productive way."
The Dade County Commission, however, took another step backward last week when it decided to ignore established procedures requiring a developer to assess the impact his project will have on the region -- including the effect on schools, roads, and sewers -- and opted instead for an expedited review that critics fear will sidestep many of those concerns. As Commissioner Art Teele, a HABDI opponent, complained: "The public is just being stampeded through this entire process.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter