Miami-Dade County Rejects $20M Opa-Locka Airport Deal

Mar. 22--Miami-Dade County Commissioners rejected Tuesday a $20 million settlement with a Canadian developer to regain control of 240 acres at Opa-locka airport, with one commissioner comparing the deal to the city of Miami's $7 million fire fee settlement fiasco.

The aviation department has been fighting with developer Matthew Hudson for nearly seven years over the future of the under-utilized airport. Hudson wanted to convert Opa-locka into a commercial airport for low-cost carriers, but the County Commission in 2001 rejected that plan, in part to placate Miami Lakes homeowners worried about noise.

The result: No development at the airport.

Opa-locka, once one of the nation's busiest airports for private planes in the 1960s, today loses money and is subsidized by the county's aviation department. It has an 8,000-foot runway in excellent condition, but its vast airfield is mostly empty, with aging hangars in need of repair.

Hudson never paid the county a penny, but he claimed his inability to develop commercial facilities destroyed his 90-year lease. The county, for its part, argues that approval of commercial flights was never guaranteed and that because Hudson didn't develop the land, he is in default of the lease.

After lengthy mediation, the two sides in January agreed on a $20 million settlement to end the battle with Hudson's Opa-locka Aviation Group and terminate the lease. The aviation department has estimated it could recoup the payment in 13 years by leasing the land to other developers.

But in the aftermath of the Miami fire fee controversy, members of the Regional Transportation Committee in February questioned why the county was settling, although it ultimately approved the payment. Days later, a county attorney memo to commissioners stated Hudson's claims were "without merit and unlikely to succeed" but characterized the settlement as the fastest, most efficient way to regain control of the airport.

Commissioners on Tuesday bashed the deal.

"Jose, there is nothing to say -- this is dead," Commission Chairman Joe Martinez told aviation director Jose Abreu. "This is a ransom. This money is our money."

Commissioner Dennis Moss compared the settlement to Miami's $7 million fire fee settlement that benefited only seven people, instead of 80,000 property owners.

"We should hold OAG's feet to the fire," Moss said. "I won't sign on to this kind of a deal. This is a bad deal. And it will come out that this is a bad deal."

Hudson, who lives in Virginia, had previously developed Glasgow's Prestwick Airport into a hub for low-cost carriers, and he planned to do the same at Opa-locka. He first held the lease in a partnership with a Scottish firm, Stagecoach Aviation, but bought them out.

County Manager George Burgess admitted the settlement made him uncomfortable, but portrayed it as a business decision, the fastest way to reclaim the airport.

"This is a leasehold that someone else has," Burgess said. "It's not going to be something that we can take back for free. That asset is in the possession of someone else . . . It's a toughie."

Hudson's attorney, Milton Ferrell Jr., questioned why the County Attorney's Office said it could win in court and why commissioners changed their minds. He said Hudson will sue the county.

"It delays the development of a valuable asset," Ferrell said. "They'll have to pay a whole helluva lot more money. I thought county attorney's advice was rather inexplicable."

It's unclear how long the litigation will tie up Opa-locka. Burgess estimated it would take between two to five years.

Hudson's rift with the county grew deeper when the county leased 20 of his 240 acres to Miami Executive Aviation in 2005.

Miami Executive urged the commission to approve the settlement because it's having trouble with the bank getting the title to its land. The reason -- confusion as to who actually owns their lease, Miami Executive or Opa-locka Aviation Group.