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Environmentalists Ask To Postpone Controversial Air Base Vote, Raise Concern Over Lack Of Public Comment

Homestead Air Reserve Base Google Earth
Google Earth
The control tower at Homestead Air Reserve Base.

Environmentalists are asking Miami-Dade county commissioners to postpone a Tuesday vote on a controversial resolution to move forward with a deal to use the Homestead Air Reserve Base for expanded operations.

In letters late Monday, the Everglades Foundation and Friends of the Everglades wrote Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez saying the resolution raises more questions than it answers.

“Use of the air base for nonmilitary purposes of any sort would likely impact dramatically the unique and irreplaceable attributes of Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park,” attorney Paul Schwiep wrote. “This is self-evident.”

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Opening the base to small flights could also eventually lead to larger operations, wrote Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.

“We are concerned that the county is pursuing an incremental approach that has had the effect of obscuring a much larger, longer-term objective,” wrote Eikenberg, who pointed out that base can accommodate “the largest aircraft in the world.”

Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the county, he wrote, would have “the authority to stop the natural commercial evolution of such a facility, even if that evolution meant grievous harm to two national parks that the state and federal governments have spent billions of taxpayer dollars to restore."

Critics have also raised concerns about limited public comment.

The item was not included in a list of items for public comment in Tuesday’s meeting. In response to questions sent to Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson’s office, commission deputy clerk Melissa Adames said the item was inadvertently omitted by the county IT office and would be added. Adames also said items not listed could be addressed during general public comment.

But Edmonson’s community liaison, Akeem Brutus, later said that the item had already been open for public comment during a Sept. 9 committee meeting, during which no one from the public registered to comment.

“The reasonable opportunity to be heard was already extended,” he said, adding that comments could instead be mailed to the commission.

When asked to clarify, Adames said she was unaware of the committee hearing.

Two decades ago, environmentalists fought and won a battle to create a cargo hub after the U.S. military downsized, converted the base to air reserve operations and got rid of nearly 3,000 acres. Expanded commercial operations, environmentalists argued, would damage the national parks on either side of the base.

Then, in 2014, Air Force officials approached the county about striking a joint-use agreement, according to a 2013 county presentation. In a letter to the base colonel, Gimenez proposed allowing small planes under 13,000 pounds to make nearly 20,000 trips a year. But in 2018, the county issued a report saying the base could solve growing cargo congestion at Miami International Airport and suggested creating an agreement similar to one at a California air base now used by Amazon for cargo flights.

Critics say the county’s July approval of an Amazon facility next to the base, along with the 2018 opening of a neighboring FedEx distribution center, could signal renewed interest in establishing a cargo hub.

In their letter, Friends asked about the timing of Tuesday’s resolution and lack of details, including the specific type of operations the county hopes to negotiate, the number of flights, the kind of aircraft, a flight path or communities affected by noise.

“Why does the County suddenly deem it necessary 'to expeditiously complete the due diligence' and finalize a joint use agreement at this time? Why the rush?” the letter said. “If due diligence has not been completed, why is this resolution moving forward now?”

An earlier version of this story misspelled Commissioner Audrey Edmonson's name.