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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

HOMESTEAD AIR FORCE BASE

Air Date: Week of September 5, 1997

Local politicians favor the development of a new airport for Miami. The site they've chosen for the billion dollar project is the shuttered Homestead Air Force Base in south Dade County - - an area devestated by Hurricane Andrew five years ago and in dire need of an economic boost. There's a hitch though. The proposed site sits between two of the most environmentally sensitive national parks in the nation. And now it's up to the White House to decide the future of the project. Alexis Muellner reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Miami International Airport is the major hub for flights to Latin America. And as trade and travel to that region have increased, so have congestion and delays. Miami, say local politicians, needs another airport. The site they've chosen for the billion-dollar project is the shuttered Homestead Air Force Base in south Dade County, an area devastated by Hurricane Andrew 5 years ago and in dire need of an economic boost. There's a hitch, though. The proposed site sits between 2 of the most environmentally sensitive national parks in the nation, and now it's up to the White House to decide the future of the project. Alexis Muellner explains.

BREMMAN: We've got a flat, calm day, which is nice because you're going to be able to see through the bank really clearly.

(A motor starts up)

MUELLNER: The midday sun blazes across the unusually calm waters of South Biscayne Bay. Park Ranger Gary Bremman guides his boat slowly through a coastal manatee protection zone. The vast bay is serenely quiet, even though the Miami skyline is visible through the haze to the north.

BREMMAN: Most national parks you go to, if you think about it, you think of mountains and trees and big holes in the ground and geysers 150 feet high, or maybe historic buildings like Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty. You look on our horizon here and the 3 biggest landmarks are a nuclear power plant, a mountain of trash, and a city of 2 million people.

MUELLNER: Despite its proximity to Miami, Biscayne National Park is home to fragile coral reefs and diverse ecosystems. Here in the bay's south end, the water is nearly pristine. But just a few miles north, closer to downtown Miami, the bay turns murky and unhealthy. Gary Bremman checks his depth gauges, cuts the motor, and glides to a stop.

BREMMAN: Where we are right now is about 2 miles from the end of the flight path of the proposed airport. And at this point planes would probably be about 1,000 feet above the spot where we're sitting. Just a little further to the west of here, over on the mangrove shoreline, is an area that's prime for bird nesting and roosting. It's an area prime for fishing, crabbing, canoeing, recreational pursuits of all types, and of course aircraft 1,000 feet overhead are going to have some pretty significant impacts on those types of activities.

MUELLNER: What Gary Bremman is concerned about are plans to build a large airport on the site of Homestead Air Base, that was devastated by Hurricane Andrew 5 years ago. Blueprints call for new terminals, cargo facilities, a hotel, office space, and an industrial park. In the coming decade, developers say, $12 billion will be pumped into the now-stagnant local economy. The base redevelopment was supposed to begin years ago, but concerns over the project's impact on the ecosystem have delayed it. Critics of the plan say an impact study done in 1994 by the Air Force was based on a much smaller operation than is now on the table, and that in January, just before the base was expected to be turned over to Dade, President Clinton put the project on hold and asked the Air Force to reevaluate its study and determine whether it's comprehensive enough to preserve the parks. The county's mayor says it is; the developers agree. Others aren't so sure. Dick Frost is superintendent at Biscayne National Park.

FROST: If you lose water quality in the fresh water entering the bay, you lose the bay. If you lose the bay you lose the lobster, you lose the fish, you affect the reef track--everything depends on the nature of the bay and the water quality of the bay. That's the linchpin to the whole ecosystem in this park.

MUELLNER: A coalition of 40 environmental groups has slowed the process with legal actions and public outcry. Alan Farago of the Sierra Club says plans call for an airport that will grow to the size of JFK in New York, with flights coming and going every few minutes. He says he doesn't want to stop the reuse of Homestead Base, just make sure development is limited to what the local ecosystem can handle.

FARAGO: Our goal is not to stop the reuse of the Homestead Air Base. There was an air base there in the past. It was and will be a productive part of the South Dade economy. But what Dade County has planned and what the Federal Aviation Administration has virtually guaranteed is a major commercial airport.

MUELLNER: Just how big the Homestead project gets, its supporters say, will depend on how quickly Dade's economy grows. They say a huge airport is possible, but not for another 3 decades. Miguel Degrande is an attorney for Habdee, the development company that 2 years ago won a controversial lease at the base. He says the airport development can exist without harm to either Everglades or Biscayne National Parks.

DEGRANDE: There have been planes flying, and there are planes flying every day over the Everglades in its approach pattern into Miami International Airport. There have been military planes flying sorties over the Everglades for the last 50 years from Homestead Air Base. It simply is a non-issue.

(Plane engines; clanking sounds)

MUELLNER: At rush hour along Homestead's business corridor, commuters pass by a farmer turning over a sugarcane field. Agriculture is still a major source of revenue here, but it always played second fiddle to Homestead Air Base. Then Hurricane Andrew trampled through 5 years ago. At the time of the storm the base had 12,000 employees and a $178 million payroll. Today Dade County's 8% unemployment is well above the national average. Near the base, strip malls sit empty and decaying. Bill Losner's president of First National Bank of Homestead, where deposits are down 30% since the storm.

LOSNER: Frankly, we're a welfare town today. We have thousands of apartments that were rebuilt after the hurricane that military people lived in. They were rebuilt. Now we have many people that live in our community that are what we call Section 8 recipients, and they are people that are on welfare. And the whole make-up of our town has changed. The middle-income people that lived in the trailer parks that are gone and moved away. We had thousands of middle-income retirement people that lived here, and they're gone. And frankly, on a weekend in certain areas of this town we look like a Third World country. It's not the town I grew up in.

MUELLNER: Supporters say revitalizing Dade's economy is not the only reason to develop Homestead. They say a new airport is needed to take some of the strain off already-overcrowded Miami International. Alex Penelas is Dade County's mayor.

PENELAS: We're going to run out of space at Miami International Airport by the year 2012. So if it's not Homestead Air Force Base, which is within the urban development line, then where are we going to build a new airport, in the Everglades? I don't think anybody wants that.

MUELLNER: The fate of the Homestead project for now lies in the White House, and the Clinton Administration is walking a tightrope. On one hand, Everglades restoration has been a cornerstone of the President's environmental agenda. But in 1992 Mr. Clinton won Dade County by promising Homestead would be a model for base conversions. Mayor Penelas says the Administration has yet to keep its promise.

PENELAS: A model base conversion, unquote. Model base conversion. (Laughs) I haven't seen anything model about this. So, I mean, I think we've gotten to a point in this community where we just need to have an answer. And I think the South Dade community in particular needs to know whether they can depend on Homestead Air Force Base as a stimulator to their economy or not. If the answer's no, that's fine. But we need to know.

MUELLNER: For Alan Farago of the Sierra Club, the Administration's agenda at Homestead can't be reconciled with its Everglades restoration policy.

FARAGO: You cannot pit multi-billion-dollar development projects against multi-billion-dollar restoration initiatives and expect that at some point the American public won't catch on and ask what the hell is going on here?

MUELLNER: The White House is expected to decide within weeks whether to turn Homestead Air Base over to Dade County for development or order more environmental studies. Another delay by the Administration, say airport proponents, could hinder Al Gore's Presidential ambitions. Florida's 25 electoral votes are key in any election. Dade's voters make up nearly a quarter of the state electorate, and over the last 25 years no Presidential contender has won Florida without taking Dade County. For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miami.

 

 

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