North Miami - NMB

There’s only 1 way in and out of school. That’s pitting ‘security’ vs. ‘nature preserve’

Legislation is being considered that would allow Florida International University to open an access road through North Miami’s Arch Creek East nature preserve.
Legislation is being considered that would allow Florida International University to open an access road through North Miami’s Arch Creek East nature preserve.

Florida International University's sprawling Biscayne Bay Campus has one serious problem, President Mark Rosenberg said — there's only one way in and one way out. And complicating the issue, he said: There are three public schools on the only access road that adds to the traffic.

“We are sitting on a very dangerous situation,” he said Sunday, referring to what would happen if there is an emergency situation and people had to evacuate along Northeast 151st Street. “My highest priority is student safety.”

To fix the problem, the university, for years, has tried to open up a second ingress and egress on Northeast 135th Street. That option, however, means having a permanent road through land that North Miami has dedicated as a nature preserve. FIU contends there is already an existing road and it will not affect the environment.

In 2011, a push to get state legislative support failed after North Miami lobbied against the option — saying opening the road to vehicular traffic would ruin the tranquil street. The city also argued it strips it of the their “home rule” ability to control its own land.

But in light of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 people dead, the issue has gained new momentum — this time focusing on security. The amendment already made it through the House and could go up for a vote in the Senate Monday.

A last-minute amendment, sponsored by Republican Rep. Brad Drake, who represents several counties in Northwest Florida, added language to the transportation bill that would preclude a city from stopping a state university from using an already made road for access if it is for security purposes.

“This is such a déjà vu situation,” said Councilman Scott Galvin. “First, they said it was if a hurricane happened. Now, they are using the shooting. It’s shameful.”

In 2007, the city officially designated the 13-acre tract as the Arch Creek East nature preserve as a way to make sure the area could not be developed. Galvin said this new push is “essentially a land grab.”

Galvin said he learned about the “eleventh-hour push” just after midnight Friday when the bill had already been approved in the House. He immediately launched a campaign against the bill getting Senate approval — asking residents to write letters and call legislators, enlisting the city’s lobbyist and reaching out to senators himself. Sunday night he held a telephone town hall, which generated a lot of callers against opening the park.

Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, who represents the area, said Sunday that he got a last minute call from FIU on Friday, but did not know that this would impact the nature preserve. He said the language was strictly brought to them under the guise of security.

“Parkland is on everyone’s mind,” he said, adding he supported the bill. “Certainly I would have liked to have more time to see if there are other options.”

Rosenberg said opening 135th Street makes the most sense. There is already a road there, he said, and it would be the fastest, most cost efficient way to solve their security concerns. On top of the more than 7,000 people on campus at any given time, there is added traffic on Northeast 151st Street because of three schools that have been built in recent years on the street: Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School, the David Lawrence K-8 Center and The Marine Academy of Science and Technology at FIU.

“It’s a robust presence of students,” he said.

He also said that traffic will increase when construction is complete on a new development on the corner of Northeast 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

Galvin said the university has other options including Northeast 163rd Street to the north.

“There are other ways to solve the problem, but they seem dead set on 135th Street and 135th Street only,” Galvin said.

Residents are hoping they can rally enough support to block the move again.

Cory Waldman, who has lived on the street for nearly three decades, said a road means “disaster” for the residential street, where about 1,000 people live.

“It’s a little known jewel,” he said . “The 135th Street residents should not be penalized for them continuing to build and build.”

But Rosenberg said nothing is more important than safety.

“That the state legislator is willing to take action is very reassuring and encouraging,” he said.