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Homestead, farmer look to settle lawsuit with Air Force

The Homestead City Council met Monday night to discuss settling a lawsuit that the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed on behalf of Homestead Air Reserve Base against the city and a family farm near the base.

For decades, the city has struggled to find a balance between property owners’ rights and base officials’ safety concerns. The lawsuit, filed in 2011, alleged that the city had ignored safety restrictions after it allowed Alger Farms to develop residential units near the end of the base’s runway.

Alger Farms President John Alger said he had no intention of building the residential units or selling the property to developers. But Air Force officials were concerned the city was putting lives at risk since Alger Farms lies in the flight paths of F-16s, F-15s and other warplanes that pass 750 feet overhead while coming in for a landing.

“We have no immediate desire for development,” said Alger, a third-generation farmer. “But the development rights allow us to preserve a hypothetical value that can be used for collateral.”

City restrictions established in 2010 limit development in an area of Homestead that the Air Force calls “the accident potential crash zone.”

Councilman Stephen Shelley said this week he worked on a settlement agreement that respects the safety restrictions.

“The settlement will benefit all of the parties involved,” Shelley said. “The solution is so simple. I’m not sure why we didn’t think of it before.”

Shelley said the deal would allow Alger to transfer his development rights to another property he owns that is not in the danger zone.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed the lawsuit after the city allowed Alger Farms to build one residential unit per five acres. This translated into 48 housing units in Alger’s 240 acres. The new proposal would allow Alger to transfer the right to build those units to another tract he owns in the city.

The other site “is not the greatest place for homes, but I still have this value,” Alger said.

With the new deal, Alger would have the right to build 55.4 units on a 37-acre property, because he would have the 7.4 units inherent to the 37 acres and the 48 units transferred. Shelley said there would not be a density issue.

“We clustered the density into an area that is not compromising the safety and it’s much less dense than what’s adjacent to it,” Alger said.

Alger’s grandfather, Mason W. Alger, started farming the land in 1934, and in 1942 military planes started taking off and landing at the base nearby. Alger’s father, Richard Alger, and his grandfather purchased land from South Dade farms in the late 1950s. They now grow sweet corn, snap beans, and trees for landscaping.

The base is home to units of the Air Force Reserve Command, Florida Army National Guard, Florida Air National Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Coast Guard, and Special Operations Command South.

When Alger found out that the restrictions affected his land, he thought the U.S. Constitution and Florida’s Bert J. Harris Act, which passed in 1995, protected him. The act allows property owners to seek remedies against government regulations causing an "inordinate burden."

But the U.S. Attorney’s lawsuit questioned the existence of Alger’s development rights. Before the council granted Alger Farms the right to build the residential units, city staff and city attorneys said Alger Farms didn’t have any development rights in the first place, because it lost them after annexation into the city in 1996. Alger disagreed.

“It’s an asset,” Alger said. “The federal government was asking me to devalue an asset without compensation.”

Alger said he is in agreement with the settlement that Shelley is proposing. Now he hopes that military officials will be in agreement too.

The settlement the council discussed Monday night will come up for a final vote within the next month or so, Shelley said.

“My family is very anxious to get our name off that lawsuit,” said Alger. “Imagine that your government is suing you because you want to preserve your rights. So I can spend money paying my lawyers while my government uses my own money to pay for their lawyers.”

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