Air Force sues Homestead, landowners, over agreement to build homes near base

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A new legal fight has emerged, centered on the years-long controversy over landowners’ rights to develop residential property near the Homestead Air Reserve Base.

For decades, the city has struggled to find a balance between property owners’ rights and safety concerns of the Homestead Air Reserve Base, which has been operating in Homestead since 1942.

Richard and John Alger, farmers and landowners in Homestead, have been wanting to build homes on their large swath of property near the base and have been in a nearly decade-long battle to do so.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, on behalf of the Air Force, is again suing the City of Homestead and the Algers, claiming a city resolution allowing the Algers to build homes on their property near the base creates a risk in the event of a plane crash.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office first sued the city in 2011, alleging that the city had ignored safety restrictions after it allowed Alger Farms to develop residential units near the end of the base’s runway.

In a 49-page complaint filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on December 9, attorneys claim that the city’s decision to settle with the Algers was not supported by enough evidence and does not act in the public interest.

The property in question sits in an area near the base’s runway, which is designated by the city and by the Air Force as an “Accident Potential Zone 1” meaning there’s a higher chance of accidents and loud noises due to flight activity at the base. The disagreement over whether that land should be developed has spanned years.

The Algers own about 192 acres within the Accident Potential Zone 1, or “APZ 1.” According to their attorney, the Algers own the majority of the land within the zone. Farming has become less lucrative in recent years, the Algers argue, and building homes would allow them to make farming financially sustainable for future years.

“We love farming, we’d love to continue doing it for the rest of our lives,” John Alger told council members during a November 4 special meeting to address their issues. “But we’re left with no options. We need to get some value out of our property. We’re tired.”

The city has prohibited residential development in APZ 1 since 1996, when Homestead annexed the property and made it subject to a 1991 zoning ordinance that prohibited residential development there.

Larry Ventura, an environmental officer with the Air Force, told the city council that if it passed the resolution, the city would not be acting in its residents’ best interest. Instead, a settlement between the Air Force and the Algers should be posed as an option in the new year, he said.

“The public interest is best served by not allowing families to live underneath an Accident Potential Zone,” he said during the November meeting. “I hold no malice or no ill will toward the Alger family. But I don’t want the impression given that we didn’t want to resolve this.”

According to city documents, the council voted 6-0 to approve the resolution, which allows the Algers to build one residence on every five acres of land. This translates into 48 housing units in the Algers’ 240 acres.

Homestead Mayor Steve Losner told the Herald that given the resolution, the filing of the suit “does not come as a surprise.”

“It is disappointing and frustrating that this decade-long controversy has been revived in the aftermath of a reasonable and fair settlement that adequately balanced the interests of all parties,” he said.

The origin of the ordinance

When the base, previously known as the Homestead Army Air Field, was created in 1942, the government took efforts to ensure that development around the base didn’t infringe on air operations. In 1957, the government bought an easement over part of a piece of property that belonged to the Algers’ predecessor. The Air Force paid the landowner $12,450 for a little more than nine acres and another aviation easement that covered a little more than 214 acres.

The Algers’ grandfather, Mason W. Alger, started farming in Homestead 1934. The Algers’ father, Richard Alger, and his grandfather purchased land from South Miami-Dade farms in the late 1950s.

The easement owned by the Air Force allows the government to prevent flight paths from being obstructed and prevent development over the area.

In 1996, when the city of Homestead annexed the land from Miami-Dade County, the piece of land became subject to a 1991 zoning ordinance that barred residential development in that area for safety reasons.

The 1991 ordinance was born from recommendations set by a 1988 study done by the Department of Defense. The main aspects of the study focused on accident potential, height restrictions and noise, and set safety zones for areas beyond the ends of runways which the study found are at a higher risk of plane accidents.

State law also imposed the requirements around the issue, after the Legislature found that incompatible uses of land near airports are “public nuisances” and that in the interest of public health and safety, incompatible land use should be prevented, and local governments should enforce airport protection zoning regulations.

In 2001, Homestead amended its growth management plan, and required that all new development be consistent with the airport ordinance. In 2004, the Legislature imposed additional requirements that required cities like Homestead to “facilitate the continued presence of major military installations” and address land use close to military bases.

In 2010, the city of Homestead adopted a new zoning ordinance that, consistent with the 1991 ordinance, prohibited residential development in the area. At the same time, however, the Algers went to the city for approval to complete residential development they said they had already begun. They claimed that the ordinance took away the right to build homes on their property and lowered their property values by more than $13 million.

The city council at the time said yes. In 2019, a Miami-Dade circuit court quashed the city’s decision. In December 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the ruling and denied a request to reconsider in February 2020.

In the filing from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, attorneys called the landowners’ 2010 request “equally inappropriate and unlawful” and said they were attempting to “create development rights from thin air.”

The lawsuit

In May 2020, the Algers claimed to the city that the ordinance “burdened their use of their property” and lowered their land value. They sought more than $5 million for the decreased value of 74 acres of their property and nearly $8 million for the decreased value of another 117 acres. In July, the city council met twice to consider its options. In November, they met again and approved the settlement agreement in a resolution.

In its filing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office argues that by adopting the settlement agreement, Homestead “completely disregarded” Florida’s Bert J. Harris Act, which allows property owners to seek remedies against government regulations causing an “inordinate burden.” It also requires that a local government’s settlement of claims be in the public interest, which attorneys say Homestead ignored.

They also claim the appraisal the Algers submitted to the city was “obviously flawed and incompetent.”

Real estate developers are taking a growing interest in Homestead due to the relatively cheap value of land there. On Nov. 25, Miami-based Lennar Corp., the biggest home builder in the U.S., paid $29 million for a 44-acre lot located west of the Homestead Air Reserve Base. The developer plans to build three communities of single-family homes and townhomes on the property, which formerly housed a mobile home park for residents aged 55 and over.

In 2017, Lennar bought 77 acres in Homestead for $11 million. Both of those properties are zoned for higher density.

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