Miami-Dade County will suspend building and other permits for a controversial Walmart shopping center in an endangered forest if the developer fails to strike a deal with federal wildlife officials to protect the rare butterflies, bats and plants that live there.
In a letter to commissioners on Thursday, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said that the county made the decision because in September, a year after a county planning board approved the 250,000-square-foot shopping center, parking lots and 408 apartments near Zoo Miami, federal wildlife officials expanded the number of rare species that inhabit the pine rockland, requiring more careful development. And if the project violates federal law, the county could be on the hook, said spokesman Luis Espinoza.
“In light of the recent federal action and in an abundance of caution,” the letter said, the county will shelve any existing permits without an agreement between Ram Realty Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The decision comes as opposition to the project continues to mount. Residents and environmentalists argue that the big-box store, LA Fitness, Chick-fil-A, Chili’s and other restaurants should not be built on the largest remaining fragment of disappearing forest outside Everglades National Park.
“Obviously, the county has taken pause,” said attorney Dennis Olle, a board member for Tropical Audubon and a director for the North American Butterfly Association. “I read it as a threat.”
On Thursday, federal wildlife officials, who have been in talks with Ram chairman Peter Cummings over the 134-acre site for months, recommended he revise plans to connect four separate forest preserves on the site. The plan would have to show “a conservation benefit for the species,” said Ashleigh Blackford, the agency’s supervisor of planning and resource conservation.
Cummings stressed in an email that he has kept a promise not to move forward with the project without getting permission from wildlife officials.
“We will continue to work with Miami-Dade County and [wildlife officials] to ensure that all governmental regulations are followed and that the community we ultimately create will set a standard of excellence on all fronts,” he wrote.
Pine rockland, which is found only in South Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba, is considered a globally imperiled forest. It once covered much of the spiny highland ridge that stretches between Florida City and Miami. But development has shrunk the forest to just 2 percent of its historic range. The Ram site, which the company bought from the University of Miami for $22 million, is part of the largest remaining fragment that once housed an old blimp base and is now carved into pieces owned by the county, UM, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Coast Guard.
UM originally planned to build an academic village on the property. But when plans fell through, the university helped Ram win approval for the shopping center and apartments in 2011.
After Ram unveiled plans for 88 acres in July, federal wildlife officials warned Cummings that the project risked violating the Endangered Species Act because the forest provides critical habitat to rare Florida bonneted bats. A month later, the agency added two threatened butterflies that live in pine rockland, the Bartram’s hairstreak and Florida leafwing, to the endangered species list. Last month, two rare flowers were also listed.
Federal officials have told Cummings that the current design for the project would likely lead to the death of endangered species and last month warned him to come up with new plans or apply for a permit allowing him to kill, or “take,” protected species.
Blackford said Thursday that the agency also recommended Cummings create a habitat conservation plan that would offset any damage. Such plans usually set aside more valuable habitat. Developing pine rockland can be tricky because fires must be regularly set to keep the tree canopy open, which large bonneted bats need to forage. Native plants that provide food and a place for butterflies to lay eggs also must be protected.
In his letter Thursday, Gimenez added another warning: the butterfly protections will likely impact county plans for the sprawling Miami Wilds amusement park also near the zoo. The county land may face even tougher scrutiny because some of the project involves federal land, where officials have more power to enforce protections. The much larger project also has the potential to further erode land that for years has remained largely undeveloped.
“The ultimate insult is they’re going to destroy wild land to bring the water slide,” Olle said.