To buy more time to decide what to do with a stretch of abandoned railroad tracks that residents want preserved as a 6.2-mile long park but a developer hopes to convert to a mixed-use corridor, Miami-Dade County commissioners agreed Thursday to take over creating a special zoning district.
The decision came after dozens of neighbors argued that adding buildings to Ludlam Trail would reduce the greenway to a sidewalk and bring more traffic to already congested streets.
The developer’s “proposal is not about a trail. It’s about doubling density,” said resident Matthew Olson. “The trail is just a marketing campaign.”
In May, developer Flagler proposed creating a new zoning district that would incorporate a trail — an idea the county has considered at least seven times in the last 11 years — in exchange for increasing density from 1,345 units to 2,400. The strip between Northwest Seventh Street and Kendall Drive, along 69th and 70th avenues, covers 72 acres and is between 78 and 100 feet wide.
Flagler proposed concentrating development at three “nodes” where use is already dense: at Blue Lagoon, Bird Road and downtown Kendall. To trigger the higher density, Flagler would have to turn over a trail to the public that, at its narrowest, would cover 10 feet of pavement.
But residents have complained Flagler’s plans have been too vague, would shoehorn buildings into impossibly tight spaces and don’t adequately preserve land which once held endangered pine rockland. In recent weeks, Florida International University bat biologist Kirsten Bohn found endangered Florida bonneted bats also foraging along the tracks. Their habitat is federally protected.
The tracks were decommissioned in 2002 and are part of the line railroad tycoon Henry Flagler agreed to extend south in exchange for thousands of acres of land from the state, said Miami Dade College historian Paul George.
The land winds through industrial districts and alongside lush, one-acre lots. It is now zoned for transportation and a mix of uses extended from adjacent land. Commissioners warned that without the special zoning district, Flagler could abandon the trail altogether.
“If we deny the application, they can apply through zoning for bigger density and they can go to court and then the courts will decide for us,” said Chairwoman Rebecca Sosa, whose district includes much of the trail.
Sosa also reminded residents that a park could be costly. Flagler estimates the land would cost $100 million. Building a park would cost another $80 million, plus yearly maintenance costs of about $1 million a year, said park planning chief Maria Nardi.
But a slice of $10 billion being raised over 20 years by a preservation measure voters passed in November could be used, said Laura Reynolds, director of Tropical Audubon. Of that, about 1.5 percent is expected to go to public trails, she said.
After nearly five hours of discussion, commissioners said Flagler and residents need more time to hash out details and agreed to hold two design charrettes. Information from those meetings will inform the new zoning district, which will probably come back before the commission in May.
Flagler’s attorney, Joseph Goldstein, agreed to withdraw the application and not apply for other development options.
The Friends of Ludlam Trail, a grassroots effort to make the trail a park, praised the decision as one that “allows us to take a breath and work with one another,” said board member Rick Santos.