Homestead City Council voted four to three to approve a proposed settlement with the Alger family interests over their 192 acres in the Air Base’s “accident potential zone”.
The settlement amended terms of the City’s 2010 Ordinance forbidding residential units in the Homestead Air Reserve Base (HARB) flight path. A pending Alger family lawsuit for $13 million may have been avoided by retreating to permit one residence per five acres in that designated area.
Mayor Steve Losner suggested compromise language to delay vested property rights under the settlement until February 1st. HARB spokesman Larry Ventura pleaded with Council for ninety additional days for a potential federal funding decision before land use changes.
Amanda Quirke Hand, attorney for the Algers, objected because “you got ninety days in July to work out the settlement when this was considered. On February 1st you’ll want another ninety days. This process has been going on for ten years. It’s unreasonable to suppose this (settlement) will jeopardize the REPI process.”
After huddling with clients Richard and John Alger, Attorney Hand told Council the Algers would agree to the proposed delay of property rights for the approved settlement.
Council’s special call meeting on Wednesday November 4 continued discussion from a late July Council session on the issue.
Protracted litigation of the City’s land use decision percolated through state and federal courts for the last ten years.
Ultimately, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal denied a last motion for rehearing on February 13, 2020. This set the stage for a suit against the City under Florida’s Bert Harris Act.
This Florida statute is intended to provide private property owners with relief when a government decision affects development rights of agricultural land. The Act requires an appraisal demonstrating loss of fair market value. It also requires the government to make a written settlement offer during a ninety-day notice period unless extended by agreement of the parties.
Two land appraisals by the Algers, one on 74.5 acres and another on the remaining 117.6 acres, showed valuations of $410,000 without the ability to develop residential units versus $13.6 million with rights restored.
The Bert Harris Act states eleven actions for the proposed government settlement offer ranging from no changes to an “adjustment of land development”. Actions also include land swaps, mitigation, modification of density, transferring development rights, or purchase of the property.
At the July special call meeting, Mayor Losner said he thought it was appropriate for the federal government to purchase the rights to the land to protect the base. However, he didn’t want to face the situation where during litigation the U.S. said property rights were extinguished years ago but was now admitting the owners did have development rights.
The Mayor also said the City was more of an observer of the past litigation between the Alger family and the federal government. He felt there was always collegial bias in favor of a respected local family.
John Alger said the family began farming the land eighty-six years ago. “We need to get the value out of the property,” he said of negotiations with the Air Force. “It’s been back and forth and it’s hot air; a waste of time. I’m sorry to take an adverse position to my own City but I’ve got to protect my family’s property.”
Besides the one-house/five-acre density, the proposed settlement requires the Algers to agree not to submit an application for a development order for three years. That delay is built-in expressly so HARB and the U.S. Air Force can apply to the REPI program for funding needed to purchase those residential development rights.
REPI is the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program under the Department of Defense combating encroachment on military operations by avoiding land-use conflicts near installations and addressing restrictions that inhibit military activities. In 2020, REPI awarded $17.1 million coupled with $142 million in partner contributions to implement seven projects that protect military missions.
The Air Force would have the exclusive right to the development purchase under the settlement. If HARB or the Air Force or any entity acting for them challenges the validity of the settlement, the offer is deemed void.
HARB spokesman Ventura read his position statement into the record. “I am the mission sustainment program manager for the Base, “he said. “I work for the Air Force.”
“Advancing the drafted resolution, the City is essentially ruling against the Air Force,” said Ventura. “I only became aware of the settlement on Tuesday when it was posted on the City website. There is a mutually beneficial solution – that we meet again in January when the results of the REPI package will be known. The Air Force is committed to staying at the table until a mutually beneficial settlement is reached.”
Councilmember Steve Shelley said “February only gets us to learning if we made the (REPI) cut or not. Then phase two would be analysis and appraisal and settlement or not. Ultimately, there’s going to be an extension because there’s not enough information on February 1 that this settlement is good.”
Ventura admitted the decision date for funding was unknown but it was certainly sometime in 2021. “The Algers are the highest priority for our five year REPI plan,” he said.
The local Chamber of Commerce President spoke to the economic impact of HARB, saying the Base contributes $331 million per year to the local economy. And locating U.S. Space Command there should generate 1400 new jobs.
An initial Council vote to approve the settlement as presented failed on a two-to-five vote. Amending the motion to approve but wait ninety days to effectuate the residential rights under an amended Ordinance was approved four-to-three; Fletcher, Roth, Fairclough-Staggers and Losner voting yes; Shelley, Bailey and Avila voting no.