County to consider taking over 601 acres at Homestead base
By Susan Stabley
A dozen years after Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead Air Force Base, part of the property may be turned over to Miami-Dade County for redevelopment.
County Commissioners are scheduled to consider an agreement July 13 to receive about 601 acres across 10 parcels at no cost.
But acquiring the property comes with a catch. No work could begin on the property until a suit by the Homestead Air Base Development Initiative is resolved, said Diana M. Gonzalez, president of the Consulting Group of South Florida and the county's project coordinator for the Homestead plan.
After Andrew blew through in 1992, the Air Force decided it would be too costly to repair the base during a time of military closures and cutbacks and slashed thousands of jobs at the base. For many years, only part of the property was used as an Air Force Reserve base.
The Air Force considered turning over 1,800 acres as surplus property in 1992. The county asked for the land in late 1996 with plans to create a commercial airport.
But in 1997, the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration began to reconsider whether the property should be used for aviation. In 2000, the Air Force allowed the county to apply for about 717 acres near the base but barred airport usage.
That prompted the development initiative, a local investment group that wanted to develop an airport there, to file its suit. Meanwhile, the county submitted an application for the property and sued the federal government over the reversal. The county dropped its suit in 2001.
No decision has been issued on the investment group's suit, and the legal issue clouds redevelopment plans for the parcel even though the county is not involved, Ms. Gonzalez said.
Ms. Gonzalez said Friday that the county could still take possession of the land if the county commissioners approve.
Typically, the federal government requires work to begin within a year of deeding property to a local government, Ms. Gonzalez said. But the agreement on the base would give the county one year after the suit is resolved to begin work.
Arguments in the lawsuit ended in mid-December, but the judge has not issued a decision, Ms. Gonzalez said. A June 22 memo from County Manager George Burgess to the county commission says the federal government has moved to have the case dismissed by summary judgment.
With a resolution pending and the land poised for conveyance, the county can start thinking about how it might develop the property.
"Our options are far greater than ever before, and that's very exciting," Ms. Gonzalez said.
The county is considering swapping one parcel to Miami-Dade Public Schools to build a school, she said.
Educational facilities are a "desperate need," in Homestead, said Mike Richardson, president of the Vision Council, the area's economic development organization, and a retired colonel who served at the base. "We're expecting a mammoth projected increase of population."
Homestead's population is expected to double in five years, he said. Mr. Richardson said transfer of the property also would help generate jobs.
The Army has moved its Special Operations Command to the base from Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Puerto Rico. A piece of land has been reserved for the Coast Guard and other Homeland Security purposes.
That makes development close to the base subject to tight security, Ms. Gonzalez said. Land closest to the airfield could be used for light industrial or institutional purposes, she said.
About 300 acres on the northern fringe of the properties closest to Florida's Turnpike could be redeveloped for retail use or as a small convention center, she said, or possibly for some type of educational center tied with the National Parks system.
"A wide variety of uses are viable for those properties," she said. Any development proposals would be considered through a competitive bidding process, she said.
Real estate analyst Michael Cannon, managing director of Integra Realty Resources and a member of the Urban Land Institute, said the only option for the property would be an ecological park.
The county's economic development organization, the Beacon Council, hired the non-partisan Urban Land Institute in 2001 to study that part of the base and craft a land-use plan that is commercially and ecologically sound, fitting with its proximity to Everglades National Park.
"The ULI study concludes there is no demand for any retail, no demand for any industrial," Mr. Cannon said. "If the county doesn't use it for public use consistent with the ULI study, then the federal government will take it back."
Mr. Burgess' memo says the county's application for the property was based on environmental tourism and educational, institutional and light industrial uses with the exception of commercial aviation. It says "the county is not restricted to these uses provided that whatever uses are approved at the site support permanent job creation. The one use that was discouraged by the Air Force was residential due to the temporary nature of jobs associated to housing development."