Fla. airport dilemma: buck vs. egret Division: A proposal to expand the Miami airport into a rural area near two national parks and a nuclear power plant has sparked a lot of angry words.

Sun Journal

March 31, 1998|By Teresa Smith | Teresa Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- At Biscayne National Park near Florida's southern tip, silence rules.

In this nether world of empty mangrove islands and brackish water, of twisted paths and gnarled roots that branch and splinter like nerve cells, the silence is broken only by the whoosh of a pelican diving for food, or the piercing cry of a startled egret.

But the park's quiet may soon give way to the sound of jet planes if Miami-Dade County is allowed to build a commercial airport at an abandoned Air Force base two miles away. The plan has already filled the county with too many shouting voices and too few listeners.

Proponents note that busy Miami International Airport, 30 miles to the north, is expected to reach its capacity by 2015. It needs to expand somewhere, and the air base offers a rare open area in a county dominated by increasing urban sprawl.

The airport proposal would include a terminal, a hotel, warehouses, manufacturing facilities and offices,

But it is precisely this sprawl that environmentalists want to check. The rural parts of Miami-Dade County and the town of Homestead, with their acres of tomato fields, U-Pik strawberry -- fields, plant nurseries and tropical fruit groves, ought to be left alone, they say, to be used as a buffer zone not only for Biscayne National Park, but for Everglades National Park, 10 miles away. ,, Both parks, they say, face extreme danger from urban development.

But rural Homestead has a different perspective. The town was devastated in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, the costliest disaster in U.S. history. The closing of the air base shut off a $400 million-a-year revenue source. Deserted by much of its middle class and stuck with high unemployment, the farming community believes the airport promises a return to prosperity.

"We're trying to rebuild a community. I really look forward to that growth," says Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver.

The area's 80,000 acres of active farmland have already dwindled to 10,000, a problem many vegetable farmers blame on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Shiver thinks farmers should be able to sell their land to developers if it is no longer viable for farming.

He believes the airport can be developed responsibly, without destroying the area's rural character.

And he thinks that a decision of vital importance to the town should be made by the farmers, shopkeepers and nurserymen who live there, not by outsiders who "come every three months and watch an alligator swim and go back to their trust funds."

Gov. Lawton Chiles and his Cabinet approved the first phase of the development last week -- including 350,000 square feet of office space and a runway for 16 passenger flights and six cargo flights daily.

But the project still must win approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Air Force and the local water-use authority. The FAA has ordered further environmental studies, which could take at least 18 months.

Water quality is of particular concern to Biscayne National Park, because it is an estuary. The fish and birds that live in the brackish environment depend on a small input of fresh water, which they now get from surrounding farmland. Airport effluent could change the picture drastically, though the airport's proponents say it shouldn't be a problem if the rules are followed.

"Wildlife depends on the much larger ecosystem that surrounds it," says Biscayne park Superintendent Dick Frost. "National parks such as Biscayne and Everglades National Park need a wide buffer zone. Birds don't know where a park boundary is."

And there are the park visitors to consider. "Do visitors really want to come to a national park where they're going to see planes flying over every five minutes?" Frost asks.

He doesn't dismiss the idea of an airport, but believes that developing it without harming the park would be difficult, if not impossible.

"It may be that a very modest one would work, or it may be that none would work," he says. "I'm skeptical as to whether the county's original version could work."

South Florida's unique geography makes it especially vulnerable water shortages, and further land development would only add to the risk. The area's water supply, the Biscayne aquifer, lies as little as 10 feet below the ground. "We stand on our drinking water," says Alan Farago of the Sierra Club's Miami chapter.

The aquifer purifies itself by circulating throughout the southern part of the state, a process that already has been greatly disrupted by agriculture and development.

Farago fears that the airport and subsequent development of the surrounding area could harm the nearby Everglades, where water flow has already been diverted to serve agricultural and urban interests.

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