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Environmentalists Thought They Stopped An Airport Near The Everglades Decades Ago. Could Amazon Put It Back In Play?

cargo plane HARB coast guard photo 2019.jpg
U.S. Coast Guard
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A U.S. Air Force cargo plane landed at the Homestead Air Reserve Base during a practice drill in February 2019.

A decades-old battle to pump up the economy in southern Miami-Dade County, by increasing air traffic between two national parks at the Homestead Air Reserve Base, could be heading for final negotiations.

A draft resolution proposed by Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss to wrap up talks is set for the commission’s Oct. 6 meeting.

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What’s unclear is exactly what is being negotiated. Neither Moss nor Miami-Dade Aviation Director Lester Sola responded to requests for comment. The resolution asks Mayor Carlos Gimenez to negotiate a fixed-base operator and a land swap. Fixed base operators are commercial businesses allowed to conduct business at airports and can vary, including fueling stations or charter services.

Critics fear the move could pave the way for heavier air traffic, rekindling a battle fought and won by environmentalists two decades ago to convert the base to a cargo hub with a commercial airport.

That no-bid deal with connected developers launched a fierce battle that Lloyd Miller, a founder of Biscayne National Park, called an 'unbelievable farce' at the time.

They worry the arrival of an Amazon fulfillment center next to the base, on the heels the 2018 opening of a FedEx distribution center nearby, could signal a push by an industry with deep pockets. The Amazon complex could potentially span a million square-feet and the FedEx center is capable of processing 8,000 packages an hour.

"This is exactly how the 1990s controversy evolved: a 'small' plan promoted by the late commissioner Larry Hawkins suddenly blossomed into a major, privatized commercial airport without any competitive bidding or any reconciliation to the multi-billion dollar Everglades restoration promised by federal and state governments," said Friends of the Everglades in a response to questions.

"We’ve seen this movie before," the conservationist group said.

The latest negotiations began in 2013, when the U.S. Air Force approached the Miami-Dade Aviation Department about civilian use of the air base under a joint-use agreement.

The military has struck such agreements at bases around the country, after the U.S. government began its post-Cold War downsizing and ordered many bases to surplus land. The Homestead base was ordered to downsize and converted to an air reserve after Hurricane Andrew slammed South Dade and destroyed most of its facilities.

The base was originally built in the 1930s for Pan American Air Ferries, converted to a military airfield in the 1940s and became home to a fleet of F-100s during the Cuban missile crisis. In 1994, the Air Force decided to hold on to just 868 acres and shed nearly 2,900 acres.

Miami-Dade County got more than 700 acres in the downsizing. In a well-documented scandalous move, it sealed a no-bid deal with the residential developers and launched a plan to build the commercial airport.

Environmentalists were enraged after the military quickly signed off on the airport, using an environmental study that failed to even identify Biscayne National Park.

“This would become a reliever airport for Miami International that would handle cargo, large scale cargo flights. And that was the problem,” said Richard Grosso, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University who represented Sierra Club in a lawsuit against the state. “There would have been regular in-and-out flights every five minutes or seven minutes. That would completely change the experience both for man and beast at the national parks.”

In comments he submitted at the time, Miller wrote:

“I have never seen such an immoral, biased, devious collection of published intellectual horse manure in my almost 80 years.”

At the urging of the Everglades Coalition, the military redid the environmental study and this time decided not to allow the county to build the airport.

Negotiations are partly unclear now because of the county’s shifting stance on what it wants.

When talks started up in 2013, the aviation department cited similar joint-use agreements at Eglin Air Force Base and California’s March Inland Port, both of which allow cargo flights.

Two years later, after county commissioners finally passed a resolution authorizing negotiations, Gimenez wrote to the base’s colonel and asked to use the base for civil air operations and special events. In the letter, Gimenez said planes would be small, weighing 12,500 pounds or less. He anticipated they’d make nearly 20,000 trips a year.

But in 2018, just months after the county attorney told commissioners talks were ongoing, the county auditor issued a special report arguing the airport could be used to relieve cargo congestion at Miami International Airport.

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An image included in a Miami-Dade County 2018 report on under-utilized space at the Homestead Air Reserve Base.

The report said expanding the airport could eliminate taxpayer waste because 75 percent of its tarmacs sat unused, maintained by tax dollars.

“A joint-use Homestead [Air Reserve Base] would relieve congestion impacting cargo operations at Miami International Airport. This would also open MIA for additional, more lucrative, passenger flights,” the report said.

Environmental concerns that derailed previous efforts, the report said, have been addressed by better Federal Aviation Administration regulations on noise and 25 years of base operations without a "serious environmental hazard."

The report also suggested using the agreement with the March Air Base, east of Los Angeles, as a model. That agreement, first struck in 1997 to allow air operations for a local flight museum, has twice been amended and eventually became a hub for DHL in the mid 2000s for three years. In 2018, Amazon Air began flying six flights a day from March.

A spokeswoman at Everglades National Park said both parks are monitoring ongoing negotiations but declined to list concerns or objections.

In 2001, the parks applauded the air force decision banning the commercial airport. “It not only protects these treasures but also provides a means toward economic recovery after the devastation of Hurricane Andrew,” Biscayne’s superintendent wrote.

Without knowing details about what’s being negotiated, Gross said it’s hard to know what kind of rules could come into play. But, he added, the concerns two decades ago have not changed.

“We’re spending billions of dollars restoring things and it's sandwiched between two national parks on a piece of land that’s vulnerable to sea level rise and surrounded by farms and rural lifestyle,” he said. “You’ve just got to get past this idea of these visions of economic grandeur and this whole idea of this under utilized economic activity space.”

An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location for a FedEx distribution center. It is located just west of the air base, not near Zoo Miami.