For more than a decade, a high-profile tug-of-war has played out over a sensitive stretch of coastal wetlands and pine rockland that’s one of the last big open parcels on Old Cutler Road — and a key piece of Everglades restoration. After a long break, the battle is now back on.
Eight years ago, after a developer filed plans to build homes, shops and a hotel on the 132-acre tract, a grass-roots campaign by residents and environmentalists prompted the state to shell out $24.5 million to buy most of the land, a critical piece of a massive Everglades and Biscayne Bay restoration project. But the developer held onto eight acres, a valuable piece fronting the busy historic South Miami-Dade roadway.
Now developer Edgardo DeFortuna, principal of Cutler Properties, has tugged sharply back on the rope. He has filed a new development plan after rejecting overtures from the town of Cutler Bay to purchase the final tract. DeFortuna wants to build 30 historically inspired homes in a layout consisting of tree-lined streets, landscaped green space and a public multi-use trail providing views of the restoration area.
But neighbors and environmentalists have yanked on their end again. They’re urging the town council, which will consider DeFortuna’s application on Wednesday, to reject it.
Their argument: DeFortuna’s land, formerly a pine rockland, is too ecologically sensitive to permit construction on it. They say it should instead be turned into a nature park serving a heavily developed area that lacks green recreational space of any kind.
Adding insult to injury, they say, is that DeFortuna has asked the town to cede him, gratis, a piece of public land so he can add a required second entrance to the proposed development on its northern boundary, Southwest 184th Street.
The piece DeFortuna wants runs along a 2 1/2-acre Miami Dade County-owned parcel that’s currently being restored as pine rockland — a rare, endangered type of Miami-Dade habitat that’s the subject of another high-profile fight, this one to halt construction of a Walmart next to ZooMiami.
“People are really fed up with the imposition of development in areas that are really unwise to develop,” said Eduardo Varona, a Cutler Bay resident who is leading the Livablecutler group’s restoration effort.
DeFortuna, a prominent Miami developer best known for building luxury condo towers in Sunny Isles Beach, declined a request for an interview. A consultant hired by the city recommended approval, saying the proposal meets the existing low-density zoning.
Cutler Bay Mayor Peggy Bell said she could not discuss the proposal before Wednesday’s hearing because it’s a quasi-judicial proceeding.
Residents and environmentalists say the state should have purchased the last eight acres when it bought the rest of the land in 2010 after three years of negotiations. But the state had a limited pot of money and could not meet DeFortuna’s price for the entire property, said Laura Reynolds, a prominent environmental consultant who lives in Cutler Bay.
In a compromise, DeFortuna kept the piece along Old Cutler, an upland parcel that was deemed as less critically important to the restoration project as the lower-lying wetlands, which stretch all the way to Biscayne Bay to the east.
The restoration project would help restore natural water flows from the Everglades to Biscayne Bay by cutting a “spreader canal” through the coastal wetlands. The freshwater would reduce salinity in the bay that’s harming fish, plants and wildlife. The project would also help control flooding in Cutler Bay, most of which is vulnerable to inundation.
Reynolds said adding Defortuna’s upland piece would improve the restoration project. Without it, the spreader canal would occupy more of the wetlands area, reducing the area over which water could spread and limiting the project’s beneficial impacts, including flood protection.
DeFortuna’s site plan also puts his development too close to boundary lines for the state lands, activists contend. If the council approves the application, they say, it should at a minimum expand the separation to better protect the sensitive wetlands.
“It’s really important for Cutler Bay,” Reynolds said. “This is in a flood zone.”
The DeFortuna tract, if restored, could also be important for wildlife, she said, and provide a public connection to the bay. The Everglades restoration blueprint originally included recreational areas to serve as buffers and to provide public access, though most of those have been dropped because of funding issues, Reynolds said.
But public acquisition of that last piece would allow trails and kayak launches along the spreader canal to the state wetlands and the bay beyond that — the only bayfront access in Cutler Bay.
“In all of Cutler Bay, the irony is that there is no view of the bay,” said Robert Gonzalez, president of the Cutler Cay Homeowners Association, immediately adjacent to DeFortuna’s planned development. “There is not a place in the whole town one can see the bay. If this is done, it would give a chance for our community, for our kids, to enjoy nature.”
Residents have asked Miami-Dade County to put the land on a list of acquisitions for its endangered lands program. They hope to hear back soon.
But Gonzalez said he has a better suggestion.
“I have suggested that the developer donate it. Leave the legacy of a nice park,” he said. “We can call it the DeFortuna nature park. He’d be doing everyone a big favor, including himself.”