Miami-Dade County

Oleta Park property pulled from Florida’s “surplus” list

Two big chunks of Oleta River State Park, the largest remaining coastal mangrove forest in North Biscayne Bay, won’t be going on the state auction block after all.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has removed two tracts totaling 145 acres in the park from a list of “surplus” conservation land statewide that potentially could be sold to developers. The Scott administration says money from any sales will help bankroll a new conservation land-buying program.

Environmentalists are relieved but said they remain concerned about many parcels, including 17 in the Florida Keys bordering U.S. 1 from Tavernier to Plantation Key. Most are third of an acre or less but they’re all remnants of rare hardwood tropical hammock and provide habitat for wildlife, rare butterflies and migratory birds.

“They apparently gave no consideration at all to the biological importance of these particular parcels,” said Michael Chenoweth, president of the Florida Keys chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America.

The state’s surplus land list set off alarms with environmental groups across the state when it was released last month. In South Florida, two of the biggest chunks were in a 1,043-acre state park bordering the Biscayne Landing development and Florida International University campus in North Miami. They include a 15.4-acre slice of wetlands and a separate 129.4-acre mangrove preserve, a disappearing habitat the park was primarily established to protect.

Maureen Brody Harwitz, an attorney and longtime environmental activist who had fought to keep the notorious Munisport landfill from destroying the surrounding mangrove forest, was outraged, branding the listing a “huge breach of the public trust.’’

The park, she said, had been championed by former Gov. Bob Graham, with the state buying the first 92 acres in 1980 and expanding it over the years, primarily through the Preservation 2000 land-buying trust fund.

“Here is one governor who created this amazing park then this guy Scott from nowhere comes along and treats state resources like they’re outdated drugs on the shelf in pharmacy,” said Harwitz, taking a shot at Scott’s background as a hospital executive.

Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, which campaigned to create the park, credited a storm of angry emails from Miami-Dade residents and support from political leaders, including North Miami council members Carol Keys and Scott Galvin, for killing the proposal.

But DEP spokesman Patrick Gillespie said it was a review of deed restrictions, not public backlash, that took the parcels off the list. Deed restrictions in the original state purchase forbid the land “from being used for anything other than public purposes,” he said,

He said state lawyers are still reviewing land covenants for about a quarter of the parcels on the list. The Oleta parcels were removed late last week but most activists didn’t hear about it until after the long holiday weekend. Twenty other parcels also have been removed for similar legal reasons.

Gillespie said the agency was continuing to collect public comment on the proposals and stressed that all parcels on the list weren’t necessarily a lock for land sales. Some could be removed or transferred to universities or other public agencies.

He said he couldn’t speak in detail about the Keys parcels but said a property’s “marketability’’ was a factor in the complicated process of weighing which lands to consider selling.

Gillespie also defended the program, saying the state hadn’t conducted a thorough review of land holdings in three decades and plans and projects have changed since many were acquired. Under the Scott plan lawmakers approved this year, he said, money from selling old parcels has to go back into buying new ones deemed more important now.

“We think it’s an opportunity to trade up,’’ he said.

The state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council, which advises the DEP on land buys, will hold a briefing on the list on Sept. 13 in Tallahassee. Gillespie said the DEP still intends to schedule regional hearings on proposals before making final decisions.