With land deal on the line, UM tries to clear path for Walmart in rare forest

Much of the pine rocklands that remain are located in Everglades National Park. Only 2 percent remains outside the park and Big Cypress National Preserve.
Much of the pine rocklands that remain are located in Everglades National Park. Only 2 percent remains outside the park and Big Cypress National Preserve. Miami Herald Staff

Stalled plans to build a Walmart shopping center on the planet’s largest remaining tract of privately-owned pine rockland are getting a surprise assist from the University of Miami.

The school, criticized for selling the sensitive land acquired from the U.S. government decades ago at no cost, has agreed to beef up protections on a nearby 50-acre tract of the dwindling forest to help save the controversial deal. The new plan, part of a conservation requirement to move the project forward, is open for public comment until the end of May. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has also asked the county commission to address the plan April 18.

Adding the new tract will keep more pineland from disappearing, federal wildlife officials said, even while risking harm to eight endangered species.

Seeing a plus no matter how small is meaningful.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supervisory biologist Ashleigh Blackford

“Seeing a plus no matter how small is meaningful,” said Ashleigh Blackford, the chief wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional office.

But critics say the project remains riddled with problems and amounts to a numbers game. The new land included in the plan is already protected by a deed restriction that calls for UM to maintain it. And the latest proposal, they say, still carves what was once a 90-acre forest across 138 acres into pieces that do less to protect the plants and animals found no place else on the planet.

This project shouldn’t have been happening. We should have had enough consciousness to stop this.

South Florida Wildlands Association Executive Director Matthew Schwartz

“The big picture has been swept away already,” South Florida Wildlands Association Executive Director Matthew Schwartz said. “This project shouldn’t have been happening. We should have had enough consciousness to stop this.”

The big picture, they say, is the need to preserve as many remaining large pieces to give disappearing plants and animals the best chance to survive. If approved, the conservation plan would be the closing chapter in a saga that has highlighted the intense pressure Florida’s dwindling wild lands face from development. Neighbors are now fighting a charter school that wants to build on vacant land near the Trinity pineland. And this week, Palmetto Bay reversed its approval of a project on Old Cutler Road.

Pine rockland is the open airy forest that sprouted from South Florida’s craggy limestone as it got battered by seasonal wildfires and once covered a spiny ridge from Florida City to the Miami River. It drew a collection of species that perfectly fit the harsh conditions: large bats that need plenty of turning room to hunt for mosquitoes and other bugs under the canopy, butterflies that only feed on the forest croton, and tiny herbs and flowers tucked into the rocky floor.

Today, just two percent of the forest remains, with 2,900 acres outside Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve. Of the fragments outside the park, the tract near ZooMiami, a former blimp base covering four square miles, was the largest and long eyed by environmentalists for preservation.

Critics also worry that allowing the shopping center could revive another big development: Miami Wilds, a theme park the county wanted to build next door. After protests, the county dropped plans for a 400-room hotel that spilled onto pineland it hoped to buy from the U.S. Coast Guard and limited plans for a water park and retail on an existing parking lot. The county also scrapped an exit ramp from the nearby Turnpike that would have cut across pineland.

UM declined to answer questions about the shopping center deal. Developer Peter Cummings purchased 88 acres in 2014 for $22 million from the university and has an option to buy the remaining 50 acres. In an email, spokeswoman Megan Ondrizek said the school is complying with all rules and “remains committed to the preservation of natural and historic resources in Miami-Dade County.”

Cummings says the development — 289,000 square feet of commercial space, a parking lot, 900 apartments, a school, and two preserves linked by a corridor and three “stepping stones” — is the best chance to preserve what’s left of the forest.

Coral Reef Commons provides the best hope for preservation of Pine Rockland — and at no cost to the public.

Developer Peter Cummings

“Coral Reef Commons provides the best hope for preservation of Pine Rockland — and at no cost to the public,” he said in a statement responding to questions. Once done, the project will generate nearly $3 million in annual taxes and $66,000 annually to The Children’s Trust, he said. It will create 780 construction jobs along with 1,000 full- and part-time jobs expected to generate $18 million in wages annually, he said.

UM has agreed to new deed restrictions that beef up protections to include other species and not the single plant now covered, Blackford said.

But critics worry that UM has already failed to follow a 2000 deed restriction on the overgrown land and has a crummy track record for environmental stewardship: UM was aware of environmentalists’ desire to protect the land, and the presence of rare forest and threatened species, when the school sold it. In the mid-1990s, when the county requested that it be added to a list of endangered lands for purchase, UM objected, said county environmental chief Lee Hefty. The school declined to provide a copy of the agreement, and Cummings’ spokesman said it was confidential.

The mitigation outlined in a complicated model assessing conservation also doesn’t amount to other accepted mitigation practices to replace lost land with a larger amount of restored or preserved land, they complain. Cummings’ consultants based calculations on quality, not quantity.

Pine rockland is a limited thing. There’s just nothing left to mitigate.

Attorney Dennis Olle

“The problem is the lack of available land to mitigate,” said Dennis Olle, an attorney and board member for the Miami Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. “If you were dealing with mangroves, I hate to be so utilitarian, but there’s lots of mangroves. You can plant new ones. Mangroves are fungible. You want mangroves, I can get you mangroves. Pine rockland is a limited thing. There’s just nothing left to mitigate.”

To calculate how best to save the forest, Cummings and his environmental consulting firm came up with their own formula, something critics question. No model existed previously, so the firm, Johnson Engineering, created one with help from federal wildlife staff, Blackford said.

“Somebody has to develop the initial model, and this is the initial model,” she said. “There isn’t a pine rockland habitat value model out there. What we know is what we consider are important characteristics of pine rocklands, so those are the building blocks of their model.”

When projects endanger rare animals, like panthers or wood storks, and it’s impossible to determine exactly how, federal officials use damage to habitat as a surrogate. In the case of the pineland, they came up with unique features to grade: its canopy, the distinct limestone floor and the amount of invasive species. With six characteristics on their list, Cumming’s team concluded that nearly 31 acres was badly degraded and another 46 acres had moderate decline. But with the development setting aside 55 acres, any impacts by the Walmart, LA Fitness, the parking lot and a future school would be fully offset.

The additional 51 acres, they say, goes above and beyond.

But critics took issue with the assessment that included surveys for endangered beetles, bats and butterflies. The consultants said no bats live in the forest, even though calls were picked up at 25 sites. They also reported the existence of no tiger beetles, saying the wildlife expert they consulted concluded that there was no viable habitat.

But in a July 2014 email, entomologist Barry Knisley wrote that he never conducted surveys on the land “because it is probably off-limits,” and that while it looked unsuitable, the pineland could probably be salvaged with better care.

Bugs and bats that don’t know any boundaries.

Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition founder Al Sunshine

“It’s like it’s a unique area devoid of any of the federally protected animals that are absolutely surrounding it,” said former WFOR reporter Al Sunshine, who founded the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition. “Bugs and bats that don’t know any boundaries.”

Plans for a school on four acres at the northwest corner of the property, and reached by a road that runs alongside one of the preserves, also remain unclear. Neither the school district nor the county could say how big it would be, or whether it would be a high school or a grade school. Blackford said her agency only looked at the footprint, but such details could be something “we could and should address.”

With so much pineland now chopped into tiny pieces, conservationists also wonder why more wasn’t done to preserve a larger tract rather than two smaller ones.

The plan, which takes the place of an earlier draft, “still places the development in the center of the property, fragmenting habitat on the property, and potentially effectively rendering remaining acreage much less valuable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Was an alternative considered that would develop along the roadway or to one side of the property to minimize fragmentation?”

Several groups have requested a public hearing. Spokesman Ken Warren said Wednesday that the agency isn’t legally required to hold one but is planning on hosting an online webinar before the end of the comment period May 22 to provide more information. Anyone submitting comments should also be detailed in what they write.

“How we can do it better is more valuable than ‘I don’t like it,’ ” Blackford said. “Simply saying I don’t like it is not valuable information we can use.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich.