Environmentalists score county for Homestead stance
By Victor Cruz
While environmentalists support the latest reuse plan for part of the former Homestead Air Force Base, county officials are forging ahead with a lawsuit that demands control over the land, including use for a commercial airport.
The county is expected to vote Nov. 20 on the proposal to redevelop part of base as an eco-tourism site.
"There's a relief that proposals are being considered other than for a commercial airport," said attorney Paul Schwiep who represents the Sierra Club and other environmental interests.
But he said his enthusiasm is dampened by the county's insistence to sue the Department of Defense, which controls the base, for the right to develop part of the land as a commercial airport.
The county decided Tuesday to continue the lawsuit. A ruling is expected within two months.
The latest plan for 717 acres of the base, submitted by the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade's economic development arm, calls for creation of a "destination Everglades project," said John Cordrey, senior vice president of research & strategic planning for the council. The development would serve as an entrance into the environmentally sensitive and significant Everglades and could include a conference center, hotel, park offices, an educational center and a base for tours, he said.
A debate over use of the land has continued since the Department of Defense offered in 1994 to release the site to the county. Previous proposals have included a mixed-use development and commercial aviation, but the federal government nixed the idea for an airport.
In June, the county hired the Beacon Council to find an alternative use for the land. The council, in turn, paid members of the non-profit Urban Land Institute $110,000 to come up with a plan.
The institute, in existence since 1936, provides land-use advice cities nationwide. Its plan for Homestead, drafted in September, was presented to the Department of Defense last week in Washington, DC.
If the county approves the Beacon Council plan and application for conveyance Nov. 20, it will be presented to the Department of Defense, which has 90 days to make a decision. If the department does not accept the county's proposal, the 717 acres will go to the Department of the Interior.
The Beacon Council also presented the defense department with separate but similar recommendations, said Diana Gonzalez, re-use project coordinator for the council.
The institute, she said, recommended swapping 300 acres of the land with a developer who could be persuaded to buy 30 acres nearer to downtown Homestead and give visitors immediate and ready access to information about the Everglades through a visitor information center, Ms. Gonzalez said.
But members of the Beacon Council - who are working with Lou Goodkin Consulting & Research and PricewaterhouseCoopers to draft a feasibility plan and a formal land conveyance application to the defense department by Dec. 12 - scrapped that idea. They favor using available land in downtown Homestead's empowerment zone for a visitor center, Ms. Gonzalez said.
She said finding a developer interested in getting his hands on a piece of property that wouldn't be ready for significant residential development for 20 years would go counter to the council's interest in creating jobs.
County commissioners, in a 5-6 vote, decided against a proposal by Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who represents the Homestead area, to abandon their lawsuit over use of the land. The county initiated the suit after the Department of Defense in January prohibited commercial air traffic at the site.
That move, Mr. Schwiep said, angered environmentalists, who say the county is not eager to find an alternative use for the base.
"There is anxiety that the county is not sincere about mixed-use development as it continues to push" in another direction "through lobbyists and through a lawsuit," Mr. Schwiep said, "and the affect will be to scare off a potential mixed-use development partner."