To wildlife managers, the pine rockland surrounding Zoo Miami represents what could be a last stand for the embattled forest, the biggest swath found outside the protected confines of Everglades National Park and a rare tract that has withstood the decades-long onslaught of development in South Florida.
But to a Miami-Dade County consultant, the land is a slum.
The finding, part of an updated look at the area, is the first step in establishing a special taxing district the county needs to help generate $130 million requested by a team of developers, including 20th Century Fox and Sony Music, who want to build a $930 million amusement park in the area. The consultant’s report is also fueling growing criticism from environmentalists and some neighbors, who oppose the park and plans for a neighboring shopping center. They plan to rally to save the property Jan. 17 near the zoo.
“We don’t think you can have proper management of this area with development,” said Tropical Audubon executive director Laura Reynolds. “You can’t burn pine rockland [to keep the habitat healthy] with a theme park on it.”
County Commissioner Dennis Moss, who has long pushed for the Miami Wilds theme park to be built in his district, argued that environmental concerns need to be balanced with other needs.
“I’m not saying go in and destroy pine rocklands,” he said. “We have an opportunity to create an economic engine and jobs for the community and that’s significant.”
The consultant concluded that poorly planned parking at the county-owned zoo, increasingly congested roads, odd-shaped parcels, multiple government owners and even restrictions tied to the endangered forest have fueled the “spread of slum” and crippled development.
County commissioners will consider declaring the area blighted at a January public hearing.
Such districts are a common strategy to help crumbling neighborhoods with failing businesses. South Beach got an early boost with a neighborhood redevelopment district. Fort Lauderdale and Delray Beach both revamped aging commercial strips with districts.
But to work, the district must encourage the very thing environmentalists say will kill the forest: development. The districts rely on pumping up property values with new development to generate taxes. They are typically urban, which has some wondering why the pineland needs one.
“To call these pine rocklands slums and blighted areas seems absolutely absurd,” said Roger L. Hammer, a leading authority on South Florida wildflowers who helped oversee the restoration of more than 100 acres of nearby pineland when he worked as a county naturalist. “Sure, they look blighted and overgrown, but that’s only because nobody managed them.”
The plan has also caught the notice of federal officials who wrote to Mayor Carlos Gimenez earlier this month to warn that the Miami Wilds project, which includes neighboring land owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, would harm protected species and require a lengthy review from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The county is now in talks with the 20th Century Fox team that also includes Madrid-based Parques Reunidos for Miami Wilds, which would include a 70-acre amusement park, a 400-room hotel, nearly a half-million square feet of retail development and a 35,000-square-foot theater.
The redevelopment district, Moss said, has been part of the park plans for years and never caused concern until the University of Miami sold land to a Palm Beach County developer for $22 million for Coral Reef Commons, a Walmart-anchored shopping center and apartments.
“When Disney was looking to build Disney World, they came to Miami and we told Disney to take a hike and they took a hike to Central Florida. You see the economic impact they had on Central Florida. We have a chance to do that with 20th Century Fox in our community,” he said. “Nobody raised a concern for years until we had this issue with the UM project.”
UM’s deal triggered bitter complaints from environmentalists, neighbors and even alumni because the federal government had given the school the land decades earlier. Rather than sell it for a shopping center, critics said, the school should have better protected the land.
Over the years, development plans for the zoo always included land preservation alongside any additional attractions, going back to its original 1975 application. But earlier proposals were more modest: one included a Lipizzan stallion exhibit. Bringing the area under one management plan has also been complicated by multiple owners, mostly various federal agencies, and UM.
The county began buying pieces after voters approved a two-year bump in taxes in 1990 that raised $90 million. But the county had to compete with others for the land, including various federal agencies and UM.
In 1997, the former head of Tropical Audubon argued the government wasn’t doing enough to protect the land. The county’s Environmentally Endangered Lands program chief said in 2005 that “further fragmentation” was making it impossible for the county to manage the tract.
The county now manages about 480 acres of the tract through its Environmentally Endangered Lands program. But even with a 2008 pledge to protect the rockland, environmentalists are concerned because a new four-lane entrance from Southwest 117th Avenue for the park would have to cross the land.
“They have an old plan. It needs to be updated. But do they have staff to do that?” Reynolds said.
Managing the land has been tricky and is complicated by the need to regularly burn it to keep the canopy thin. Rock pineland once grew over much of the 55-mile long rock ridge that stretches between Homestead and central Miami. It has since shrunk to just 2 percent of its original size, squeezing into its remaining boundaries a host of rare plants and animals that live nowhere else.
If the projects advance, at least one tenant in the area says the county needs to strike a balance.
“I’m a historic preservationist. I’m all for pine rocklands,” said Anthony Atwood, who is leading an effort to open the Miami Military Museum and Veterans Memorial on land nearby. “There’s a middle ground and, frankly, we’re a tourism community. And there’s nothing wrong with eco-tourism.”