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Miami-Dade Commissioners Agree to Move Forward With Controversial Talks Over Homestead Air Base Expansion

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

Environmentalists had asked to hold off advancing negotiations until the county provided more details on the what operations would look like.

Miami-Dade commissioners voted to move forward with talks to expand use of the Homestead Air Reserve Base Thursday despite opposition from environmentalists.

In an attempt to head off the decades-old resistance to expanding air operations, commissioners agreed to limit negotiations to general aviation services only. The term applies to smaller regional airports like Opa-locka and Miami Executive Airports not used by large commercial carriers.

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But that designation does not limit the kind of cargo flights critics don’t want crowding skies above two national parks.

When asked by Commissioner Danielle Levine Cava, who wanted cargo flights excluded from negotiations, assistant county attorney Cynji Lee said general aviation airports allow cargo traffic. Cava is running for county mayor.

“That distinction between commercial and general aviation really talks about the scheduling of flights and the amount of flight activity,” Lee said. “It does not ban — at all — cargo activity.”

Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Aviation Director Lester Sola said they oppose cargo flights, but Sola said a master plan with specifics would not be ironed out until an agreement was struck with the military.

Gimenez, who is running for the U.S. House District 26 seat (which includes southern Miami-Dade and the Keys), said bringing civil operations to the old military base was intended to provide relief to Ocean Reef residents. The tony community’s short runway currently limits the size and weight of aircraft.

“So they have to take off and they have to land somewhere else and then they have to take off again and put fuel on,” he said. “From an environmental point of view, it really will reduce the need for takeoffs and landings.”

But environmentalists and residents worry that the arrival of Amazon, which bought nearby county land in July, and the 2018 opening of a FedEx distribution center, signals a potential cargo hub.

“This is a beautiful case of an October surprise a few weeks before an important election cycle, especially when those that were making decisions today are termed out of office,” said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, referring to five commissioners who will be replaced after next month’s election. “Nothing at that hearing changed our concerns about what they're contemplating at Homestead Air Reserve Base.”

Environmentalists defeated county plans for commercial airport at the base in the 1990s because it would threaten wildlife and fragile habitat in two nearby national parks. Heavy flight traffic also runs counter to years of restoration work and billions spent to revive Everglades marshes and Biscayne Bay, they say.

The U.S. Air Force had initially approved an airport but backed off and banned commercial operations in a 2004 decision.

Based on that Air Force ruling, Sola said the county never expected to develop anything more than limited operations for small aircraft when it started negotiations in 2015.

“The county took a position to develop specifically only under the guidance of a civilian use. So we're removing anything having to do with commercial operations. No regularly scheduled flights. No airlines. And definitely no cargo either,” he said.

Sola said that remains the plan and said so far the county is proposing a 150,000-square foot building and new taxiway.

A tentative plan includes a 150,000-square foot building and new taxiway.
Miami-Dade County
A tentative plan includes a 150,000-square foot building and new taxiway.

But in 2018, the county auditor issued a report suggesting the base could be used to relieve cargo congestion at Miami International Airport. And in a report this week that compared the base to March Inland Port in California, where Amazon and UPS fly cargo, the office said the California base generates 75 percent more money than Homestead.

Lee did not respond to an email asking to clarify whether the 2004 order from the Air Force meant businesses like Amazon or FedEx would be prevented from using the base to transport cargo.

Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district includes the air base, proposed the latest move to speed up talks and has long seen the base's expansion as an economic boon. Moss leaves the commission in November, due to term limits, but is running for a seat on the Miami-Dade school board.

“This issue has been around for a very, very long time,” he said. “There's always going to be critics. I don't care what we do today, they're going to still be people who are going to object to it.”

Amazon, which declined to comment on future operations, has expanded its air fleet in recent years, including opening a $100 million cargo hub in July at Lakeland Linder International Airport. FedEx also declined to comment.

Environmentalists worry with an 11,200-foot long runway, the base will draw much larger aircraft. And while general aviation airports typically serve smaller planes, runway size determines what can be landed at airports, said Tom Haines, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

With so many questions, environmentalists wanted to delay the vote.

“What was clear from this morning's discussion is that there was great confusion around this supposedly joint-use agreement at all levels,” attorney Paul Schwiep, an attorney representing Friends of the Everglades, said in an email. “We continue to be baffled by the Commissions’ "ready, fire, aim" approach to this sensitive and delicate issue.”

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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