Miami-Dade County

Walmart in rare forest draws focus to Zoo Miami amusement park

The latest threat to a disappearing forest — a planned apartment complex and strip mall anchored by a Walmart — is bringing new scrutiny to what might be an even bigger foe to the endangered land: a billion-dollar amusement park in the works for almost a decade.

An Orlando-style attraction with a water park, rides, a hotel and conference center, restaurants and acres of parking was approved by voters in 2005 for property near Zoo Miami so long as it did not trample the endangered pine rockland around the proposed development.

Miami-Dade County officials are working out details for the public-private partnership with 20th Century Fox, the project’s chief operator, and hope to submit a plan by the end of the year, said County Commissioner Dennis Moss, who represents the area.

But part of the deal calls for a highway exit ramp through the fragile forest, according to a June 25 letter from county Mayor Carlos Gimenez to University of Miami President Donna Shalala asking about land needed for the ramp.

Now neighbors, environmental watchdogs and federal wildlife managers, who were caught off-guard after UM sold its little-used South Campus property for the shopping center, worry that the rockland forest, among the planet’s most environmentally sensitive lands and home to a rare array of endangered species, could face additional peril.

“There’s got to be better coordination between us and the county before they rubber-stamp projects,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mark Salvato, who called for a meeting with county officials in early August to discuss how the county develops sensitive land.

Neighbors, still smarting from news about the Walmart, also have questions.

“I can’t imagine anyone saying, ‘We have these incredible natural lands — let’s just turn it into concrete,’ ” said Michael Rosenberg, president of the Kendall Federation of Homeowners Associations. That board plans to discuss the Walmart project at an Aug. 21 meeting.

Moss said the amusement park would not be built on land designated as natural forest or on property protected by the county’s Environmentally Endangered Lands program.

“The environmental community would like to conserve everything and I understand that, but at the end of the day we have to create jobs and opportunity for the community,” he said. “It’s a balance.”

While plans for the amusement park are far from final, a Fox rendering attached to Gimenez’s letter to UM shows a four-lane exit ramp leading from Florida’s Turnpike at Southwest 168th Street, running south of Coast Guard property through a tract of rockland.

Other potential impacts on environmentally sensitive lands in the 20th Century Fox proposal include a 16-acre attraction called Adventure Beach, parking and a 100-acre theme park and sports complex on property currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. Some of that development, if it receives final County Commission approval, would take place on land designated by the county as natural forest or endangered.

Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Director Jack Kardys said the county would ensure during negotiations with Fox that the forest lands are protected.

“It’s unfortunate it’s being talked about in light of the rather negative things I’ve read about the other development there,” he said, referring to the shopping center. “But that’s a whole different ballgame than what we’ve got going on here. The Walmart didn’t have a referendum. The zoo did.”

Fox executive Greg Lombardo, who laid out the entertainment giant’s plans to county officials last year, did not respond to telephone and email messages requesting comment.

Much of the land around the zoo is either owned or managed by the county’s Environmentally Endangered Lands program, created in 1990 after voters agreed to a two-year tax to pay for the purchase and preservation of endangered rockland, hardwood hammocks and wetlands. Land included in the program can be disturbed only to advance the conservation mission.

Management of the land is key to the forest’s success. The plants that thrive on the forest’s coral rock floor need sunlight and air. Before development, seasonal fires naturally kept slash pines under control and the tree canopy airy. But without fire, trees can crowd into the rockland, smothering plants.

The forest once covered about 180,000 acres of Florida’s high spiny ridge between Homestead and the Miami River, providing habitat for Florida panthers, eagles, snakes and other wildlife. But as development chopped up the forest, wildlife that ranged across the miles of rockland disappeared. Indigo snakes, which once slithered throughout the Richmond area — the largest intact tract of rockland outside Everglades National Park — haven’t been seen in years.

“We’ve got to the point where there’s so few pristine pieces of land that people are upset,” said Laura Reynolds, executive director of Tropical Audubon. “We want them to look at this holistically, and are they going to manage it. They may not even know what’s out there.”

Unraveling what happened to a forest that once filled the area — and housed part of a World War II-era blimp base for patrolling the Caribbean — is as much an exercise in parsing environmental laws as understanding long-fought battles over conservation and economic development.

Over the years, as federal officials shed the 2,100-acre base, the land was carved into pieces. Today, the old base is home to an unlikely collection of neighbors that includes the zoo, operated by the county’s parks department, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Defense and UM’s satellite-tracking CSTARS installation.

In 1981 and 1997, federal records show the government gave two parcels totaling about 140 acres to UM. The land sat largely undeveloped over the years, with just a handful of buildings used for research and storage. In 2005, UM asked the county to rezone the land to allow it to build an academic village.

Tropical Audubon’s Reynolds said she and other environmentalists objected, but the County Commission approved the rezoning to allow business and residential development. Audubon was unaware that UM had negotiated a new deal to sell the land for the shopping center, even after notices for the new plans were mailed to property owners within a half-mile radius and hammered out over three hours during two local community council meetings.

At the community council meetings in September and October 2013, about half a dozen supporters urged the council to approve the plans, with attention focused largely on traffic and jobs.

“We estimate it will generate hundreds of jobs both during the construction phase and the permanent phase,” attorney Juan Mayoltold county commissioners before they unanimously approved the project.

“You’re on record now with this promise,” Moss responded. “So I expect that the commitments made here in writing will be lived up to.”

The shopping center, along with the Fox amusement park, have refocused attention on protected lands in the area.

Environmentalists warn the county is being shortsighted in giving up valuable land for low-wage jobs and a strip mall, and has failed to properly manage the forest. In fall 1999, endangered lands program administrators proposed acquiring 665 acres of the Richmond tract and designating the land as environmentally endangered. Ultimately, the county secured only 142 acres.

“Only 2 percent [of rockland] is left, and the little that’s left is going to be turned into a Walmart,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “It’s one of these issues that people are not going to let go of.”

Lack of oversight is partly to blame, Reynolds said. The county hasn’t drafted a management plan for the Richmond tract, which includes both the shopping center and the amusement park, since 1994.

And when UM and Palm Beach County-based developer Ram submitted their plans for the shopping center, they relied on a decade-old survey. Botanists later discovered a trove of endangered and rare plants, as well as the Bartram’s hairstreak — a butterfly expected to be added to the endangered species list this summer — outside the areas designated for the preserve.

“When [the amusement park] went to the voters, it was specifically phrased that any expansion of the zoo would not be on environmentally sensitive lands, so it’s not right and it shouldn’t go forward,” said Julie Dick, an attorney for the Everglades Law Center. “How many destructive acts do they want to take on here?”

On a recent morning, dozens of butterflies flitted through the forest east of the zoo. The atala, a butterfly that nearly vanished in the 1970s and ’80s until a successful drive to replant the butterfly’s host plant, the coontie, led to successful rebound, floated from one coontie to another.

Just steps from where Zoo Miami veterinarian Frank Ridgley parked a golf cart, he discovered a patch of deltoid spurge, an endangered plant found only in pine rockland and one of many delicate herbs and wildflowers sprouting from the forest floor. In recent years, zoo biologists have twice found a Rim Rock crowned snake in the forest, a creature so rare that it has been encountered only 20 times in recorded history, he said.

“We literally avoid walking in the woods here because anything you walk on is important,” Ridgley said. “Pine rockland is the most bio-diverse habitat in South Florida. Forget the Everglades. . . . This is the ancient forest.”

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Zoo Miami veterinarian Frank Ridgley.