President Clinton, Air Force Reject Everglades Airport

Environmentalists Hail Decision, But Will Continue to Monitor

WASHINGTON (January 16, 2001) - The Clinton administration today rejected a proposed commercial airport that had been planned on the site of the former Homestead Air Force Base, 30 miles south of Miami and less than 10 miles from Biscayne and Everglades National Parks.

The decision gives about 700 acres of the property to Miami-Dade County, which had proposed and promoted the airport, but bars the base’s use as an airport and directs that it be used as a mixed-use, residential and commercial development. The county has 90 days to agree to take the air base under such conditions or it will be transferred to the Interior Department, the option advocated by the environmental groups. Implementation of the decision will be the responsibility of the incoming Bush administration.

"This decision is a victory for common sense and public input over special interests. An airport with 600 flights a day over the Everglades was an abomination," said Bradford H. Sewell, senior project attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Now we will need to make sure whatever is developed at Homestead protects the national parks and is consistent with Everglades restoration."

"The Clinton administration has taken a bold stand to protect national parks from destruction by a commercial airport – for the time being," said Alan Farago of the Everglades Defense Council. "Giving this land to Miami-Dade County leaves open a wild card that can be played in support of the parks or against them. Officials at Miami-Dade County have proved time and time again that they are fully capable of being extremely inventive when it comes to destroying our national heritage."

Today’s action reverses parts of a 1994 record of decision that had conditionally approved the airport. But in 1997, the federal government determined that more environmental studies were necessary.

"Environmental groups had hoped the Air Force would honor a request by the Interior Department for a land exchange with developers to create low-impact tourism and commercial uses," said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club. "We will monitor the situation closely to make sure the [decision] is complied with."

"As much as this is a victory for national parks protection, we fully expect both the Interior Department and the EPA to continue to be closely involved in future decision-making on the property, given its immensely sensitive location," said Kevin Collins of the National Parks Conservation Association.

George W. Bush’s administration will finalize many of the details of the plan, including any legal transfer of the property to Miami-Dade County and requirements for environmental mitigation.

"We intend to be very vigilant to make sure that our next president and Miami-Dade County both satisfy the letter and spirit of this decision and proceed with a development that is fully protective of the adjacent national parks and is wholly consistent with Everglades restoration," said Julio Robaina, mayor of the City of South Miami, which opposed the airport.

The broad coalition against the airport includes local and federal politicians, Republicans such as Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire; many members of Florida’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Peter Deutsch. The Department of Interior, the EPA and dozens of environmental and community groups also opposed the airport. Opposition to the airport was expressed in tens of thousands of letters to the White House and Air Force, as well as dozens of editorials in newspapers.

In its decision, the Air Force said it transferred the base property to Miami-Dade County, the designated "Local Redevelopment Authority," to be consistent with its prior practice of transferring decommissioned bases to such Authorities.

Last Friday, airport developers filed a lawsuit in a last-ditch effort to delay the decision until the next administration takes office. The suit claims that the additional environmental studies should not have been conducted and that the government had no right to change its mind after originally approving the airport.

"Legally, the suit has no merit and, I believe, poses no real threat," said the NRDC’s Sewell. "If the developers really believed their claims, they would have filed them years ago. Moreover, the federal government has a right to dispose of its property under whatever conditions are deemed proper and lawful. The developers, on the other hand, have no legal right to pollute our national parks."