When hurricane Andrew roared through Homestead, Fla., in 1992, it blew down power lines, trees, and even houses. But more significantly, it blew away the Air Force base that had been an anchor of the local economy.
Ever since, the town has struggled to rebound.
Now, eight years later, Homestead is facing a different kind of storm - a heated debate over what to do with the closed-down air base.
On one side are environmentalists concerned about the impact of development on nearby Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. On the other are many elected officials, who want to bring higher-paying jobs back to the depressed agricultural region.
"The current condition is intolerable," says John Merrigan, a Washington lawyer whose firm was hired by developers seeking to build a commercial airport on the old air base. "What you have is a pocket of the country that has been left out of the prosperity of the '90s."
Environmentalists who oppose the airport project counter that it could destroy one of south Florida's most precious assets: its protected natural lands. "This is a huge industrial development project in an extremely sensitive environmental location," says Brad Sewell, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "An airplane flying overhead once a minute at altitudes of 1,000 to 5,000 feet in terms of the national park means that you would not be able to hear yourself talk at the Biscayne National Park visitor center."
In addition, some critics of the commercial-airport proposal question whether it is consistent to build what might become a major airport adjacent to Everglades National Park at the same time that Congress is considering spending billions of dollars to restore the Everglades ecosystem.
Officials in Washington are expected to issue a decision on the air-base issue in the next several months, and analysts say it will almost certainly trigger lengthy litigation.
The air-base controversy is shaping up into a potential political quagmire into which neither Vice President Al Gore nor Texas Gov. George W. Bush has attempted to wade. Mr. Gore's silence has prompted some environmentalists in south Florida to question his commitment to protecting the environment.
However the issue is resolved, it will go a long way in determining how one of the last rural regions in southeast Florida is developed.
At issue are two different proposals. One calls for converting the base into a commercial airport to relieve congestion at nearby Miami International Airport. The other seeks to build a commercial and tourist center with a golf course, hotels, a large aquarium, shops, and office space.
The latter option is favored by environmentalists as having the least impact on the national parks. As part of the deal, the Collier family, Florida pioneers with large land holdings, would agree to swap its long-held right to explore for oil and gas in the Big Cypress National Preserve in exchange for 717 acres of the old air base.
Proponents of the commercial airport say that airplanes have been taking off and landing from the property since the 1940s with no major detrimental effect on nearby park ecosystems. In addition, Mr. Merrigan says, an airport is much more valuable to the economic well-being of the region than another commercial and tourist project. "It is now universally recognized that there is a need for a reliever airport and that the only option is Homestead," he says. "If the airport isn't permitted at this point, no one can identify another option for Miami-Dade County and south Florida."
But every major environmental group in the nation opposes building a commercial airport at Homestead because of the property's proximity to Biscayne National Park, a mile to the east, and Everglades National Park, eight miles to the west.
Jonathan Ullman of the Sierra Club says the airport would lead to unrestrained urban sprawl similar to the maze of warehouses and ad hoc businesses that border Miami International Airport. "Just look at Miami International and plunk it down on the low-lying agricultural lands of Homestead right up against the national parks and it spells the death of the parks," he says.
Airport proponents say their project will create 38,000 new jobs within 15 years. David Pearson, a spokesman for the commercial-tourist project, says his development will provide 26,000 new jobs, but without posing as big a threat to the environment.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society