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There's A Proposed Change For Miami-Dade's Homestead Air Base Deal. Critics Say It's Not Enough

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The runway at Homestead Air Reserve Base stretches more than 11,200 feet, long enough to land some of the world's largest aircraft.

When a controversial resolution to move forward with a deal to expand air traffic at the Homestead Air Reserve Base comes back before the Miami-Dade County commission Thursday, a caveat will be suggested: general aviation services only.

Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava has proposed the amendment to head off criticism from environmentalists worried the base will become a cargo hub for nearby Amazon and FedEx facilities.

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But while general aviation prohibits scheduled commercial flights, it doesn’t necessarily rule out the kind of cargo traffic environmentalists fear. And with a runway stretching 11,200 feet — just a couple thousand feet shy of Miami International Airport’s longest runway — experts say the base is capable of handling some of the world’s largest jets.

Homestead Base Cargo Landing 2019
An Air Force cargo plane at Homestead Air Reserve Base during a military training exercise in 2019.

“That’s longer than many commercial airline airports,” said Tom Haines, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “Given that runway length, to answer your question, it’s certainly possible Amazon or some company like that would want to use that as a cargo base.”

Whether the Federal Aviation Administration approves the use would be determined by other factors, he said, including the number of flights and size of planes that might impact air traffic control safety.

Miami-Dade commissioners delayed a vote Tuesday after the lengthy meeting was adjourned before commissioners discussed the air base item.

In response to questions, Amazon said it does not comment on future plans.

“Amazon is a dynamic business and we are constantly exploring new locations and weighing a variety of factors,” spokesman Owen Torres said in an email. Its July purchase of nearby county land to build a million square-foot facility “provides us with the flexibility to quickly respond to our future network needs. Stay tuned for more information.”

In response to questions, a spokeswoman for FedEx said the company is always looking for ways to meet customer demand but as a policy “does not publicly discuss specifics of a project until all aspects have been finalized.”

A public affairs officer at the air base referred questions to the county.

Critics say details of what’s being negotiated need to be made public before the deal moves forward. Earlier this week, the Everglades Foundation and Friends of the Everglades asked for the vote to be delayed.

“I applaud Commissioner [Levine] Cava for taking this on,” said Laura Reynolds, a vice president at Friends of Biscayne Bay. “However, it's concerning that you can still have cargo in a general aviation situation where it seems very convenient that Amazon and FedEx are located there. Obviously, we're all thinking that's the plan.”

Environmentalists have long opposed expanding heavy air traffic at the base, which sits between two national parks.

In the 1990s, after the military downsized and converted the Air Force base to a smaller air reserve base, environmentalists fought to prevent the county from building a commercial airport on surplused land. Ultimately, the military reversed an earlier decision and sided with environmentalists, saying the county could use the land for mixed use development, but not an airport.

In 2013, base officials approached county officials about striking a joint-use agreement which would allow civil operations, according to a county presentation. After commissioners approved negotiations, Mayor Carlos Gimenez asked in 2016 to allow small planes, weighing 12,500 pounds or less, with up to 20,000 flights a year.

The agreement, he wrote, “will provide Miami-Dade County with added opportunity for economic growth and development while contributing to the overall viability of the Homestead Air Reserve Base.”

In 2018, a county report suggested using the base to relieve cargo congestion at Miami International Airport.

That position puts the county at odds with the federal government, which hopes to spend, along with the state, more than $7.4 billion over the next decade to restore the Everglades.

In 2000, Congress singled out out the base and its sensitive surroundings between two national parks — and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — when it approved a water infrastructure bill for restoration work. Congress warned development of the base could “potentially cause significant air, water and noise pollution and result in the degradation of adjacent national parks and other protected federal resources.”

Future redevelopment should be consistent with restoration, lawmakers said.

Across the country, there are about 5,200 general aviation airports. Some, like Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, are located near sprawling commercial airports and offer private charter flights to places not served by major airlines. Many are located in rural areas, Haines said.

“In Miami you have access, but in rural areas, general aviation is how goods and services are delivered,” he said.

General aviation airports also provide space for flight training schools, aviation mechanics, police and rescue workers, crop dusters, paint shops and facilities for pilots flying private business jets. And space for air cargo, as businesses like Amazon and FedEx thrive with shoppers increasingly turning to online purchases — especially amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

“FedEx has smaller planes, Cessna Caravans, and they would be able to use these smaller airports,” Haines said. “They do it all the time.”

In July, Amazon landed its first cargo flight at Lakeland Linder International Airport, a general aviation airport, The Ledger reported, after building a $100 million facility that includes a seven-jet hangar on 47 acres. The company has an option to expand to another 62 acres.

While Miami-Dade’s latest resolution calling for negotiations to come to an end remains virtually unchanged from a 2015 resolution, that also lacked details, critics say the arrival of Amazon demands a better public airing.

The resolution underwent a public hearing at a virtual committee hearing with no public commenters last month. It calls for a fixed base operator — which applies to a variety of businesses — but includes no other restrictions.

At Tuesday’s meeting, before a vote was delayed, the item was not included as a separate matter. Opponents say before it advances, questions need to be answered about impacts to the Everglades and Biscayne Bay.

“There has to be a real detailed due diligence done on how these are compatible.” Reynolds said. “After all these years later — 20 years later — we still don't know.