Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade commissioner backs off plan to declare rare rockland blighted

Sean Atkinson with daughter Katherine Atkinson, 5, marched at a January rally to protest plans for a Walmart and amusement park near Zoo Miami off Coral Reef Drive.
Sean Atkinson with daughter Katherine Atkinson, 5, marched at a January rally to protest plans for a Walmart and amusement park near Zoo Miami off Coral Reef Drive. Miami Herald Staff

A fragment of rare pine rockland is not a slum — for the time being, anyway.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss said Tuesday he was indefinitely postponing a plan to declare land around Zoo Miami blighted to help pay for a Disney-style theme park while he worked out a better way to balance environmental concerns for the endangered forest with the need for jobs.

“The intent has been all along to make sure we have a project that is environmentally sensitive but at the same time provides an opportunity to create jobs,” Moss said after critics blasted the plan for about an hour at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting.

The county has long sought to create a controversial theme park on land it owns off Coral Reef Drive. But last year criticism grew sharper after a Palm Beach County developer bought 88 acres of nearby rockland from the University of Miami and announced plans to build a Walmart-anchored shopping center and apartments. In December, Moss proposed declaring the land blighted as the first step in establishing a Community Redevelopment Area which would help raise $130 million the county needs to entice a developer to build the 70-acre park.

Known as the Richmond tract, the globally imperiled forest is found only in South Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba. Today, barely 2 percent of the range that once covered the limestone ridge between Florida City and Miami remains and provides critical habitat for federally protected bats and butterflies.

Moss’s move to defer action at Tuesday’s meeting marks the second postponement in recent weeks after opponents formed the Miami Pine Rockland Coalition and mounted a fierce campaign to stop the project. Protesters staged rallies near the zoo and UM’s Coral Gables campus. Organizers also say they collected 95,000 signatures with three online petitions.

“To argue this beautiful piece of our environment is slum and blight because it doesn’t have enough parking or retail — voters know better,” resident Juan Cuba said, one of about 30 critics who spoke Tuesday. “If we’re going to have an honest conversation about why a CRA is happening, we should have an honest conversation.”

Moss said that while creating a CRA to generate money is not out of the question, environmental concerns needs to be addressed first.

“For now we need to focus on creating an environmentally sensitive project,” he said. “We need to take an opportunity to present our side of the story and to basically be able to show that … we’re not out to destroy the pinelands, to destroy the beetle and the bats and the butterflies, but that we can create an exciting project at that location that respects the environment and creates thousands of jobs.”

Even if the project wins public support, the county must still overcome federal hurdles and devise a critical habitat plan that complies with wildlife regulations.

In recent weeks, county staff members have submitted wildlife surveys to federal wildlife managers, said county parks director Jack Kardys. The county’s partners on the project, including 20th Century Fox and Madrid-based Parques Reunidos, have also hired wildlife biologists to work on permits, he said.

“At this point it’s really up to the wildlife service,” he said. “They’re the ones guiding us through this permitting process.”