A developer hoping to get federal wildlife officials to sign off on building a controversial Walmart in a disappearing South Florida forest has submitted new plans that save more land and connect wildlife with a corridor.
The plans, submitted Friday by Ram Realty Services, would increase the amount of pine rockland and hardwood hammock preserved on the 138-acre parcel to just under 52 acres — about eight acres more than Miami-Dade County required when it approved Ram’s project in 2013. The new plan also reconfigures the preserves by dividing them into two larger areas, rather than three, connected by a green corridor a little wider than a two-lane highway. Another 3.8 acres would provide “stepping stones” in between.
Developer Peter Cummings said the plan presents a new “detailed, fact-based portrait of the land.”
But environmentalists, who have long opposed building on the last, largest tract of endangered rockland outside Everglades National Park, say it does far too little, even with the additional preserves and corridor.
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“If this is one of the only remaining parcels, making a small corridor on it isn’t helpful,” Tropical Audubon Executive Director Laura Reynolds said. “We’re just at the point where this is dire.”
The project sits on part of the old Richmond Naval Air Station that includes Zoo Miami. Worldwide, rockland is found only in South Florida and parts of the Bahamas and Cuba and provides habitat to a menagerie of rare plants and animals that exist no place else.
For decades, as the county acquired and restored parts of the forest, the University of Miami housed its south campus on its largely undeveloped parcel, surplus land the U.S. government deeded to the school in the 1980s with the understanding the school would use it for educational purposes for 30 years.
When the covenant expired, the school sold about 88 acres to Cummings for $22 million. Cummings has a contract with the university to buy the remaining land, where the Walmart will sit.
Over the past year, critics mounted a fierce campaign to stop the project, gathering thousands of signatures on an online petition and staging rallies at the site and outside UM’s Coral Gables campus.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez also offered to buy the land. Cummings said Friday the land was not for sale.
The Palm Beach County developer’s efforts to build the project, called Coral Reef Commons, have also been complicated by the growing number of protected species that live in pine rockland. In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added two more — the Bartram’s hairstreak and Florida leafwing butterflies — to the endangered species list. The agency is also currently considering including the Miami tiger beetle. Two other species, the Florida bonneted bat and Florida indigo snake, also inhabit pine rockland.
In a meeting with the Miami Herald’s editorial board, Cummings said his plan offers the last best chance for saving the remaining rockland by coming up with a management plan that includes periodic burning needed to maintain the forest’s unique open canopy. He also argued that much of the rockland is overgrown and beyond restoring.
In the plan, required by federal wildlife officials, Cummings proposes clustering the 900 apartments around Southwest 127th Avenue, which runs through the center of the property, and building the shopping center along busy Coral Reef Drive. The Walmart and a large parking lot would be built on pine rockland that Cummings says is filled with invasive burma reed and other plants and a former UM building.
The plan, one of six alternatives, must now be reviewed by federal wildlife managers. The public will also get a chance to comment.
The latest plan closely resembles earlier plans, with the exception of the wildlife preserves, which Cummings now divides into two areas, connected by a 50-foot strip of restored pineland running along the south border of the property.
Such strips, called wildlife corridors, have long been advocated by wildlife biologists as way to expand habitat for species that live in urban areas. But the corridors must meet certain criteria to work, said Heather Cayton, the managing director of Conservation Corridor at North Carolina State University. More than just movement, species have to be able to breed after moving between patches of forest, which means there must be a diverse gene pool between areas.
“There is a lot more to consider for the success of corridors than just movement,” she said.
Which is what concerns environmentalists, who still hope to persuade UM to back out of the deal.
“UM can still stand up and say we made a mistake,” Reynolds said. “We know this land can be protected.”