Environment

Miami-Dade County seeks to buy rare forest

Amy Werba, at center, marches with others as the Miami Rocklands Preservation Coalition and other groups rally to protest a Walmart and an amusement park planned for protected pine rockland near Zoo Miami in January.
Amy Werba, at center, marches with others as the Miami Rocklands Preservation Coalition and other groups rally to protest a Walmart and an amusement park planned for protected pine rockland near Zoo Miami in January. Miami Herald Staff

An endangered forest where a developer wants to build a Walmart has a new suitor: Miami-Dade County.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Dennis Moss said Friday the county would like to purchase 88 acres near Zoo Miami, hoping to derail plans by a Palm Beach County developer to build a shopping center on the land featuring the box store, an LA Fitness, restaurants and apartments. The development plans, announced last year, set off blistering protests from residents and environmentalists.

“We feel it’s the right thing to do,” Gimenez said after announcing the purchase plans in a meeting with the Miami Herald editorial board.

However, the deal hinges on whether the county can obtain money under Amendment 1, a state constitutional amendment to help buy endangered land now being haggled over in the Florida Legislature, Gimenez said. And it also depends on whether developer Peter Cummings wants to be courted.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott on Friday, Gimenez and Moss asked for money — but not a specific amount — spelling out the significance of the property, which is part of the last, largest intact tract of rockland outside Everglades National Park and is home to a menagerie of endangered bats, butterflies and plants. Pine rockland, a globally imperiled forest, once covered 185,000 acres in the county, the letter said. It now grows in fragmented chunks on just 3,700 acres.

Gimenez and Moss said the county has not yet approached Cummings, who paid $22 million for the land last year and has an option to buy about 50 more acres.

Cummings, chairman of Ram Realty Services, did not respond to a message left on his cellphone or email late Friday.

The county already owns a significant chunk of the tract, including the zoo property and Larry and Penny Thompson Park, as well as land where it hopes to build Miami Wilds, a controversial 70-acre amusement park. The remaining land is split among federal agencies, the University of Miami and Ram.

Moss and Gimenez said that information about the rareness of the critical habitat, provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which is managing efforts to preserve the land, influenced their decision.

“We should be in a position to try to acquire the Ram property, the Coast Guard pineland and any properties we don’t currently own and preserve them and be able to protect them,” said Moss, who conceded that Ram may not be a willing partner.

“I don’t know if Ram would be interested. But at least that’s an alternative they can consider going forward as they take a look at their options,” he said.

The Walmart project has drawn fierce opposition from neighbors and environmentalists, who staged protests and collected thousands of online signatures. Federal wildlife managers also rejected Cummings’ initial plans, saying they would almost certainly harm federally protected butterflies and bats, as well as four new species that were added to the Endangered Species List after he bought the property.

Federal law doesn’t prevent developing privately-owned endangered land, but it does require Cummings to submit a critical habitat plan or risk incurring fines. An agency spokesman said this week Cummings has not yet submitted a new plan.

If the county moves forward with the Miami Wilds project, it may face even bigger hurdles since plans include land now owned by the Coast Guard and rules for building on federally-owned endangered land are much stricter.

Critics of both the Walmart development and Miami Wilds welcomed the decision.

“I’m happy to see the county reacting to the people. It restores my faith that civic engagement does make a difference,” said Tropical Audubon executive director Laura Reynolds, who suggested UM, which obtained some of the land from the government for free, pitch in on the purchase. “They need to be helping out here.”

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