A Palm Beach County developer trying to build a Walmart in a rare forest has asked Miami-Dade County to turn over records that could reveal who first circulated a photograph of an endangered butterfly that helped ignite opposition.
In a sweeping request, a lawyer for Ram Realty Services Chairman Peter Cummings asked for all records related to a development permit, along with the photograph of a Bartram’s hairstreak butterfly perched on a croton in the pine rockland. The April 6 request asks for information that would reveal who took the photo and when, as well as all emails, texts and any other communication between county staff, biologists and a long list of environmentalists and residents opposed to the controversial project, which includes a shopping center and about 900 apartments.
For some biologists, who signed a confidentiality agreement before Cummings allowed them onto the 138 acres to rescue rare plants, the demand could have a chilling effect.
“That tends to signal that you better be careful what you say,” said Dennis Olle, an attorney and a board member for Tropical Audubon, one of the group’s listed in the demand.
Cummings did not respond to a message on his cell phone or an email, but later issued this statement: “We have filed this Freedom of Information Act request to understand what communications have transpired between government officials and third parties about our property, as is our right under Florida law.”
The project became the target of demonstrations and online petitions after Cummings announced plans last summer to build Coral Reef Commons with its Walmart-anchored shopping center and surrounding apartment complexes. The land, which Ram bought from the University of Miami for $22 million, is part of the last, largest intact tract of pine rockland outside Everglades National Park and has long been eyed by the county as part of an effort to restore vacant rockland around Zoo Miami.
Pine rockland once covered much of the spiny ridge that snaked from Florida City to the Miami River between the Everglades and the coast. Over the years, South Florida’s intense development left it fragmented, shrinking the forest to less than 2 percent of its historic range. What is left provides habitat to rare species, and plants and animals found no place else, including bats and several butterflies.
As part of his county permit to build in the forest, Cummings was required to let biologists and workers rescue rare plants for two weeks. But when they arrived in late June, somebody snapped a photograph of the endangered butterfly in land slated for development. The photo began circulating among butterfly and plant enthusiasts.
At least three experts — from Zoo Miami, Fairchild Tropical Garden and the Institute for Regional Conservation — were asked to sign confidentiality agreements promising not to disclose information or use it to the “detriment” of Cummings or UM. Such contracts are not uncommon, Olle said. And asking for records on a controversial project that may wind up in court is a standard move.
“It helps to see what your opponents are saying to regulators,” he said.
In the request, Cumming’s lawyer Luna Phillips asks for the “purported photograph” they say was taken by a county zoo employee and sent to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. She also asks for emails, texts, cellphone and telephone logs and other records to and from much of the county’s environmental office and biologists, as well as protest organizers and reporters.
Including biologists from Fairchild and the IRC, both nonprofits, in the request sounded like an intimidation tactic to Al Sunshine, a former CBS4-WFOR television reporter who now heads his own news service, lives across the street from the project and has helped organize opposition. Sunshine was also listed on the request.
Sunshine said he was not surprised Cummings would use the public records law to scare critics, calling it a “tacit warning.”
Three days after the Miami Herald first reported the discovery of the butterfly, U.S. wildlife officials warned Cummings to stop work or risk facing harsh penalties, and obtain a permit. The permit also required Cummings to devise a habitat conservation plan that included surveys for protected species and changes to Ram’s original plans. Federal officials received the plan this week and will likely spend months reviewing it.
Finding out who sent the picture may provide evidence for a legal claim, but it still doesn’t get around the fact that the butterfly was found, Olle said.
“You’re going to sue me because I told someone I found an endangered species on your property?” he said. “Bring it on.”