Four years ago when Miami-Dade County took out a newspaper ad to rezone part of the Richmond pine rocklands, a rare forest home to a growing list of endangered plants and animals, it listed special exceptions requested by the developer: a liquor store close to a school, fewer parking spaces, exceptions to landscaping and signs, and an educational facility within an airport zone.
What it didn’t include was a Walmart-anchored shopping center, including an LA Fitness, and 900 apartments.
This week, neighbors sued, claiming the “layman’s” description in the public notice failed to adequately tell them just what was planned for the 138-acre parcel off Coral Reef Drive — the largest piece of the globally imperiled forest outside Everglades National Park.
“They’re allowed to abbreviate and make it more concise,” said attorney Kent Harrison Robbins, who is representing neighbors Al Sunshine and Cully Waggoner. “But this went beyond just abbreviation. They didn’t even mention that they were putting in a shopping center.”
The suit is the latest salvo in a three-year battle to stop the project that would carve the forest into two swaths with the sprawling development at the center.
In a statement Tuesday, Palm Beach County developer Peter Cummings said through a spokesman that the project followed all requirements.
“Coral Reef Commons has received and continues to pursue all necessary permits to allow for restoration, conservation, and the creation of a high-quality mixed use community,” the statement said. “The process has been thorough and in full compliance with all legal requirements. Any allegations to the contrary will be addressed in the appropriate venue.”
The University of Miami-owned parcel near Zoo Miami had long been eyed by environmentalists for preservation. In 2006, however, the university applied to have the land rezoned from agricultural to ‘traditional neighborhood,’ and said it planned to replace a lab and cages used for primate research with an academic “village.”
But in 2013, after striking a deal to sell half the land to Cummings for $22 million with an option to buy the rest, the university amended its application. UM now wanted to rezone 60 acres for a special business district, which allows malls and business parks, and rezone 36 acres for apartments. The remaining 47 acres would be a planned area development, which mixes residential with “convenience” retail.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing a habitat conservation plan Cummings submitted and expects to have a decision by year’s end, spokesman Ken Warren said. Miami-Dade officials said they had not seen the suit and could not comment.
Environmentalists and biologists have been particularly incensed by the project given the vulnerability of pine rockland under the growing threat of sea rise in South Florida.
Of the 126,500 pine rockland acres that once existed in Miami-Dade County, only about 2,300 acres remain outside the national park, broken into pieces across the densely populated county. And biologists say smaller fragments mean fewer species, lowering the survival odds for endangered species like the bonneted bat, the Miami tiger beetle, the Bartram’s and leafwing butterflies, and a host of wildflowers, herbs and other plants that inhabit the forest.
In a September paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Biodiversity and Conservation, Florida International University biologists Ian Jones and Suzanne Koptur warned that the forest has been so chopped up, extinctions for many plants may be unavoidable.
“Put more clearly,” they wrote, some species may no longer have enough habitat and “those species represent the living dead.”
Yet they also said effective conservation efforts, like a 1990 county property tax to purchase disappearing land like hardwood hammocks, mangrove forests and rocklands, and another effort to work with private land owners to replant or protect forests have helped save more than 22,000 acres, including the pinelands.
Little of this was known to him, Sunshine said. A former television reporter who helped found the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition, he said he didn’t realize what was happening until the Herald wrote a story nearly a year after the Kendall Gazette posted a story and only after biologists were allowed to visit the property and discovered a trove of rare plants.
“I had gotten one notice for an academic village and suddenly, a couple of years later, I get another notice not realizing it was supposed to be the very same project,” he said. “When I checked with all my neighbors, none of them were aware of the scope of the project and none were aware at the time that it was the end.”
It’s not unusual for residents to miss the details of such technically worded notices, Robbins said. In addition to the description, the lawsuit alleges the legal notice failed to include the legal description of the property. A mailed notice failed to state the nature of the application, the suit claims, nor do records contain a sworn affidavit saying requirements have been met.
Robbins conceded such failings might be technical, but they’re necessary to ensure the public is informed.
“If it isn’t clearly on their face, like there’s a shopping center going in, who’s going to make further inquiry? And then the notice is a farce,” he said. “The process and the transparency is just not there.”