Airport delayed pending environmental study Postponement is setback for Fla. area devastated by Hurricane Andrew


MIAMI -- In a new setback for Homestead, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Andrew five years ago, the federal government has ordered the city to postpone building an airport on the site of an Air Force installation until an environmental study can determine whether the project would damage the Everglades and protected coastal areas.

The study, which is expected to begin next month, will be conducted by the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The city's plan would use the existing Air Force runway and build a terminal, hangars, warehouses and cargo facilities.

Dade County officials estimate that the airport would cost $20 million. Politicians have lobbied since 1992 for the construction of an airport to give a lift to the town's economy.

Three years ago, the Air Force conducted an environmental-impact study, but after planners revised the original proposal, it decided to commission a new review. The proposed changes included an increase in the number of cargo flights and the possibility of adding a runway.

"After five years of studies, negotiations and environmental cleanup, there has been no gain for South Dade," where Homestead lies, Mayor Alex Penelas of Dade County said. "This decision represents another severe blow to the economic recovery of this community."

Officials have argued that they should be allowed to begin construction of the airport while the study is in progress.

For environmental groups, however, the government's decision, announced Tuesday, signaled a small victory in a protracted battle involving politicians, federal agencies and wildlife advocates.

They have long argued that a new airport and its accompanying noise could threaten the health and reproductive ability of wildlife in the Everglades National Park, which lies 12 miles west of the 1,300-acre site, and the coastal Biscayne National Park, located two miles to the east.

The decision by the White House to postpone construction for the study "was a victory for our national park system," said Alan Farago, the political conservation chairman of the Sierra Club in Miami, adding that it is "time to take a big step back from this massive airport."

Still, Farago said, the new environmental-impact study does not ensure the sanctity of both parks. Dade County officials have drafted tentative plans for a second runway and other expansion by about 2015 that, officials estimate, could cost as much as $2.2 billion, he noted.

If this second phase is completed, Homestead, a town of about 28,000, could turn into a bustling, international thoroughfare, from which residents could fly as far away as Latin America and the Caribbean.

"This is no small airport," Farago said. "They are trying to hide an elephant with a mouse."

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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