Federal court ruling could set stage for Homestead air base redevelopment
By Frank Norton
Opposing visions for developing about 600 acres of the former Homestead Air Force Base could be clarified through a legal dispute being weighed by a federal judge.
The controversy began in 2001, when a local investment group called Homestead Air Base Development Initiative, or HABDI, seeking to turn part of the property into a commercial airport, sued the federal government over its banning of commercial aviation on the land. The US Air Force had agreed to release the property to local developers but barred using it to build a new airport.
Two years later, HABDI's suit to overturn that decision could have a new angle.
The group's lawyers have what they call a "smoking gun federal document" that could shift development prospects back into their client's favor.
The document is a memo from former deputy secretary of transportation Mortimer Downey to former White House chief of staff John Podesta. HABDI lawyers are trying to get that memo submitted as evidence in their effort to overturn the ruling since it may suggest the prohibition of aviation at the site was "legally erroneous," said Ignacio Sanchez, a partner with attorneys Piper Rudnick in Miami.
"Our theory is there was political interference at the highest levels of government, we believe by parties in and around White House circles," added Lawrence Levinson, also with Piper Rudnick in Washington, referring to Mr. Podesta and senior Clinton administration officials.
The HABDI group is financially linked to the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, an influential Cuban-born businessman and lobbyist who co-founded and chaired the Cuban American National Foundation.
Since 2001, Miami-Dade County and other interested private developers have grown their own ideas about how to market and commercialize property, proposing eco-tourism and other clean industry.
In 2001, the Beacon Council, the county's economic development agency, hired the non-profit Urban Land Institute to devise a commercially and ecologically sound land-use plan that would not damage the neighboring Everglades.
The institute's recommendations include development of sports and recreational parks, an eco-tourism information center and offices for park scientists.
HABDI lawyers say those ideas could be moot if their new information comes to light.
"This is a vital document to the philosophy of our case," Mr. Sanchez said, adding that the government's decision to ban commercial aviation at the site resulted from "political interference."
A federal judge has yet to decide whether to permit the document become part of the case.
There is no deadline for that decision, but once it is made, both HABDI and the Department of Defense have 30 days to file motions for summary judgment, which will ultimately lead to the decision of whether to uphold or reverse the ban.
"We're looking to file our motion and get this ruling overturned, in which case we're back to an airport in terms of development prospects," Mr. Sanchez said.
Meanwhile, county legal staff members are saying negotiations with the federal agents on terms of the land transfer are on track and could wrap up by June 30.
Land won't actually be handed over, however, until the lawsuit is resolved, said County Attorney Bob Cuevas. The suit clouds the future of the land, he said, and should be settled before any development bid process begins even if the county is offered control of the land.
"We're still waiting for lawsuit to be settled," said Diana Gonzales, project coordinator for the Homestead re-use plan and president of the consulting group of South Florida Inc. She couldn't say when that might happen, only that the suit is stalling the county's prospects for commercializing the property.
"We've never committed to any private sector plans because whatever happens has to go through a competitive bid process," she said. "It's not at that stage yet so there really aren't any developers waiting in the wings."
Federal attorney John Most, who represents the Department of Defense, declined to comment on the case, but HABDI attorneys were eager to show their optimism.
"The really interesting question here is whether the Air Force would just convey the land directly to HABDI and leave the county out of it if the ruling is overturned," Mr. Sanchez said.
But Assistant County Attorney Richard Rosenthal indicated earlier this year that the suit could be resolved, perhaps by dismissal, this summer.
"There's really no way of telling when, though."