‘A brave, new, airborne world’

Did you know Palm Beach County once considered building the world’s largest airport?


The supersonic jet, filled with more than 1,000 passengers, settles on the runway and taxis to the gate of the South Florida Jetport. It’s the world’s largest air terminal, five times the size of New York’s JFK International.

Arrivals collect their bags and line up to board shuttle buses to the monorail station. The ride will be a long one. Boca Raton is 40 miles away. Forty miles east.

Had business and government interests prevailed, starting in the 1970s, the future of aviation, a sprawling complex as big as Walt Disney World would have risen from the scrub of far southwestern Palm Beach County about 25 miles southwest of Belle Glade.

A busy expressway and a futuristic rail would have whisked passengers toward the coast. And homes and townhouses, and service stations and convenience stores, and traffic lights and bus stops, likely would have exploded along every inch.

Instead, the spot is now the Holey Land Wildlife Management Area.

That was just one of three potential sites in Palm Beach County. One was about 30 miles farther east, at what’s now the airboat ramp at the south end of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The third was at 20-Mile Bend, in the heart of sugar cane country.

Or it could have been in Hendry County, west of Clewiston.

Or in northwestern Miami-Dade County.

Or at one of as many as 40 possible spots, all tantalizing 1960s dreamers who saw transportation and commerce and development, and didn’t think a lot about what all of those things would do to some of the most sensitive lands in America.

The original Jetport project was 40 miles west of Miami on the Collier-Dade line. Workers went so far as to lay the runways.

Work abruptly stopped amid waning enthusiasm, and following a federal government study co-authored by a guy named Arthur R. Marshall, and pressure from a group headed by a feisty retiree named Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

The site was relegated to what it still is now, decades later: a remote facility for promising pilots to practice their touch-and-goes amid disinterested herons and alligators.

Back then, South Florida had the choice of a series of scattered airports — what it has now — or a single hub serving tens of millions; a gigantic airport carved with impunity into the fragile heart of Florida’s interior.

“They wanted it on first impression,” said Bob Graham, Florida’s governor from 1979 to 1987 and U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005. “It was one of those ideas that, the more you hear about it, the less attractive it became.”

‘A mammoth jetport’

We liked Ike. In 1956, Florida’s population had doubled, from 2 million in 1940 to 4 million. Of those, a quarter lived in the coastal strip from Miami to West Palm Beach.

The Palm Beach Post, in its Opinion section, proposed a regional super-airport, strategically placed in north-central Broward County, just west of the about-to-open Sunshine State Parkway, now Florida’s Turnpike. And, it said, the area’s three counties should start planning “at once” in order to “assure us of our rightful place in a brave, new air-borne world.”

Palm Beach County, meanwhile, considered going alone. It talked up a $22 million airport on 6.25 square miles on State Road 7, some 15 miles northwest of West Palm Beach and 8 miles south of the Pratt & Whitney plant, then under construction. The Jetport would operate jointly with the Korean War-era Palm Beach Air Force Base, then at PBIA.

Within weeks, the newspaper bemoaned, Palm Beach County commissioners had “kissed off” its sweeping vision. The Post wouldn’t let the idea go. Without a three-county joint project, it warned, Dade County would go it alone, and the location of the giant airport would be “painfully obvious”: it would be a long way from West Palm Beach.

By the mid 1960s, The Post was proven right.

It was something right out of the 21st century — a “mammoth jetport,” with six runways, to “whisk” South Florida into the future. It had everything but George Jetson. It would cost $500 million.

But where to put it?

Coastal Dade — it would become Miami-Dade in 1997 — already was starting to build up. And planners realized people might not be keen on sonic booms over their homes several times a day. So, they suggested, put it where people weren’t, at least for now: in that godforsaken scrub and swamp filled with alligators and rattlesnakes.

The Dade County Port Authority bought 39 square miles of undeveloped land. It was about 48 miles east of Naples, 45 miles west of Miami International Airport, and 40 air miles southwest of Boca Raton. And just 6 miles north of the Everglades line.

More ominous: the airport would be connected to the coast by a new highway and a high-speed monorail, in a 1,000-foot-wide corridor through what now are protected water conservation areas.

Work on the Jetport started in 1968. The potential cost had swelled to $1 billion.

But the Department of the Interior started asking questions.

“Progress sometimes is destruction.”

The Interior Department commissioned the first environmental impact study ever done in Florida. One of the key players: Arthur R. Marshall, now revered as a giant of Everglades protection. The report on the “Big Cypress Swamp Jetport,” later called the “Leopold-Marshall report” — Luna Leopold was head of the U.S. Geological Survey — came out in 1969.

The study didn’t mince words. It said construction of the Jetport, with all the development that would follow, “will inexorably destroy the South Florida ecosystem and thus the Everglades National Park.”

Enter Marjory Stoneman Douglas. The former Miami Herald reporter, then already nearly 80, and like-minded people formed Friends of the Everglades. The group’s long-term goal: protect the unique ecosystem. Its short-term goal: stop the Jetport.

And the Jetport was stopped — by the Everglades Jetport Pact, signed Jan. 16, 1970.

But people still wanted a super airport. Where else could it be built? Eyes began to look north.

The three sites were mentioned in Palm Beach County. And in September 1969, the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation blessed the idea of the spot 40 miles west of Boca.

Its biggest cheerleader was Glades-area Commissioner E.W. “Bud” Weaver.

“There are five other states competing for this Jetport,” Weaver — who would die at 77 in 1991 — said in October 1969. “And we in Palm Beach County are mainly concerned in seeing it does not go out of Florida.”

A strange bedfellow was the Audubon Society of Palm Beach County. It held its nose and backed the site, saying it did the least damage.

The spot was so far in the middle of nowhere that the nearest human beings were nine miles to the east, on U.S. 27, in the booming metropolis of Terrytown, population 2.

“I’m going to run for mayor of Terrytown when the Jetport comes in,” Tilman R. Jack Hollingsworth quipped of the combination truck stop and restaurant where he was the cook.

But more serious questions arose: what about the miles and miles of roads that would be cut through the interior? What about shuttle buses? A monorail? Helicopters?

“Many people are dazzled by the term ‘super jetport,’” then-Boca Raton Mayor Emil Danciu said. “But there are many factors that need due conversation.”

City Council member Sid Brodheadwas more blunt: “Progress sometimes is destruction.”

The tide started to turn. In December 1970, the Palm Beach County Commission went on record opposing the Jetport. And in Tallahassee, a group of legislators reportedly was mulling a statewide referendum. “The thinking,” Florida Wildlife Federation President Johnny Jones said at the time, “is that if Florida is going to be destroyed, it should be up to the people to make that decision.”

That same December of 1970, 75 members of a U.S. Department of Transportation site selection committee spent two hours on a jet flying over some three dozen proposed sites. Later, the people who’d signed on to the Jetport pact recommended “Site 14.” It was on a 23-square-mile tract in far northern Dade County. The place could serve 39 million passengers a year by 1990 or 2000 and become the hub of what would become a new metropolis. Dade County gave approval in July 1973.

Nothing happened.

Aviation officials were adamant. The clock was ticking. A 1977 report warned that, without a giant regional airport, by the start of the 21st century, South Florida’s three main commercial hubs would be in aerial gridlock.

The feds weren’t so sure.

“A fresh look is needed.”

In 1981, the Federal Aviation Administration approved another environmental impact statement. Then a June 1982 report to Congress by the U.S. comptroller general — titled “Fresh Look is needed at proposed South Florida Jetport” — said that many studies still were needed before any decision was made. Its timetable called for the commercial airport to be operating no earlier than mid-1997. That vision, too, fell through.

In May 1983, then-Gov. Graham killed the plan. Again. But as late as 1987, the Florida Department of Transportation still was saying a jetport was needed within five to 10 years.

“They’ve got to keep out of the Everglades. I’m going to fight them tooth and nail. They’re crazy,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas, already 97 — she’d die at 108 in 1998— told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinelat the time.

Then-Gov. Bob Martinez agreed. He went on record opposing the idea. It died. Again. This time, perhaps, for good.

In the end, it wasn’t an environmental wakening that killed the Jetport, as much as those groups would like to take credit, said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida, who has worked for the group at the local or state level since the 1960s.

Instead, he said, it was chamber of commerce types deciding the business model just didn’t work.

“Development interests in Dade and Collier got all lathered up as a way to open up the Everglades to development,” Lee said. “They rode that horse probably longer than the actual trend in airport planning.”

Ironically, another factor was that there were too many potential sites, without “a nucleus of support of any one,” Lee said.

But he did say the shelving of the Jetport concept, as well as the nixing of the Cross Florida Barge Canal , marked a series of dramatic victories that gave footing to the nation’s nascent environmental movement.

Meanwhile, the land around the original Jetport site was bought up by the state and the feds in 1974. It became the 576,000-acre — now 729,000-acre — Big Cypress National Preserve.

Nathaniel Pryor Reed, of Jupiter Island’s Reed dynasty, has been one of South Florida’s most high-profile environmental voices. Reed was environmental adviser to then-Gov. Claude Kirk in the 1960s, and assistant secretary of the interior to presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford from 1971 to 1977. In both capacities, he played a role in the death of the Jetport. And creation of the Big Cypress. Now 83, he recently wrote an essay on that effort.

Would the Big Cypress have happened “if the propaganda for developing the site into a major supersonic jetport had not raised the environmental issues at a time in our nation’s history when environmental issues were national news?” Nat Reed asked. “The answer is an emphatic ‘No.’”



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