Homestead Air Reserve Base plans new taxiway over wetlands, raising activist concerns

Crowds line up early to get a glimpse of the interior of a C-5 Galaxy at the 2018 Wings Over Homestead Air & Space Show at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida on Nov. 3, 2018. This year’s two-day event features the USAF Thunderbirds and the US Army Golden Knights parachute team. U.S. Air Force Photo by Peter Borys.

Adriana Brasileiro

Miami Herald

More than a year after county commissioners approved a project to allow general aviation use of Homestead Air Reserve Base, there is still no final answer from the U.S. Air Force as environmentalists continue to fight a plan they believe will open the door for increasing air traffic over two national parks.

Their latest objection: The county’s plan to allow private aircraft would require the construction of a taxiway from the main runway through wetlands on the airport property. And county documents show that environmental concerns — a deal-breaker 20 years ago when the county first tried to turn part of the base into a much larger and louder commercial operation — remain a hurdle.

“No matter where they are, they (the taxiways) are going to have to run through jurisdictional wetlands. We will have to do mitigation,” Robert Warren, assistant director for business retention and development at the Aviation Department, wrote in a June 26, 2020, email to Lester Sola, director and CEO, Pedro Hernandez, assistant director, and others in the department.

In emailed response to questions, Miami-Dade Aviation said the proposed fixed-base operator would include a single taxiway of approximately 3,420 linear feet. The proposed taxiway would be built entirely inside the base’s property line and would connect the new facility’s apron area with the end of the Air Reserve base’s runway, the county said.

“Any environmental remediation or mitigation, if required, would need to be studied and recommended by an appropriate environmental consultant,” the Aviation department said in the email.

But Friends of the Everglades, which obtained county memos and emails about the base through a public records request, said the presence of wetlands only adds to their argument that the base is unsuitable for expanded aviation use. The nonprofit has asked the Air Force to reject Miami-Dade’s plans for a joint-use agreement, arguing it could clear the way for large commercial operations including cargo. Increased flights and traffic, noise and pollution right next to Everglades and Biscayne national parks were to a large degree what thwarted the last attempt by the county 20 years ago.

“It is clear to us that opening up HARB to civilian use is likely to lead to the kinds of intensive uses, including commercial cargo operations, that the Air Force wisely prohibited decades ago,” said Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades. With a FedEx distribution center already open nearby and a planned Amazon facility just a few miles from the base, environmentalists believe the county has bigger plans for the base, she said.

They aren’t the only critics.

Sen. Marco Rubio criticized the project in December, saying the plan opens the door to activities that could threaten the military base’s mission. It would also “breathe life into misguided proposals to expand the urban development boundary (UDB) north of the base in order to build an Amazon logistics center,” Rubio wrote in a letter to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.

He also said the increased traffic and activity around the base could threaten Everglades restoration projects that are expected to benefit South Dade and Biscayne Bay.

There are several wetlands spots inside the base. There have been alligator sightings and wading birds sometimes forage in the area. While the wetlands and woodlands are located close to the Everglades and Biscayne Bay and protected by state law, they are on the grounds of what was once a bustling military base. There also have been environmental problems there. It was the site of chemical spills and leaky underground fuel tanks for decades since it opened in 1942 as the Homestead Army Airfield. A cleanup started in 1993 and was finally concluded in 2006, when the Air Force concluded a transfer of part of its land to the county for economic development purposes.

The battle to keep commercial aviation and cargo operations from airspace over two of Florida’s most iconic ecosystems isn’t new. After Hurricane Andrew ravaged Homestead in 1992, the idea of transforming the heavily damaged base into an airport was one of the options envisioned to support the area’s economic recovery. But opposition from environmentalists — and influential residents of the Ocean Reef Club, a wealthy North Key Largo enclave right in the flight path — thwarted that plan and the facility was instead rebuilt as a reserve air base.

Plans for a new fixed-base operator resurfaced in 2014, when former Mayor Carlos Gimenez began negotiating a joint use agreement with the Air Force for general aviation operations and services. In late 2015 county commissioners approved a resolution directing Gimenez to propose a deal for limited civilian use at the air base, with only small planes using the facility.

Then in the summer of last year county commissioners voted to sell a vacant lot in Homestead to Amazon. The site, sold for $22 million, is expected to be the e-commerce giant’s biggest warehouse in South Florida, with plans for the construction of a distribution center of at least one million square feet. And it’s less than three miles from the base. FedEx is also already in the vicinity, with a distribution center that opened in 2018.

A recent proposal to convert farmland into a massive industrial park near the base — a project that would require expanding the Urban Development Boundary — adds to suspicion that cargo would eventually be part of the general aviation operations in Homestead, activists have said.

Developers won preliminary approval in September to move the line that forms the outer edges of where companies can build housing, warehouse centers and other businesses. The boundary creates a development buffer meant to protect the Everglades and Miami-Dade’s shrinking farmland footprint.

The South Dade Logistics and Technology District industrial park is being pitched as a way for the county to fix decades of poor planning in South Miami-Dade and add decent-paying jobs. The project’s economist says about 12,000 people will work there once the warehouse hub, hotel and shopping center complex is fully constructed.

County commissioners who have championed the fixed base operator project have used the same argument to defend it: Chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz and former commissioner Dennis Moss, who sponsored the proposal, also said that taking advantage of the base for civilian use was key to economic growth in South Miami-Dade. They said the county is the gateway to the Caribbean and South America, and it’s important to add aviation capacity for future use because of growing tourism and business activity.

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