Federal wildlife managers on Tuesday cleared the way for a Walmart-anchored strip mall in one of the world’s rarest forests, a tract of vanishing pine rockland inhabited by butterflies, bats, snakes and fragile wildflowers found no place else.
In approving a conservation plan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they do not expect the sprawling box store and mall, a parking lot or 900 apartments to threaten the survival of more than 20 endangered plants and animals — including the Miami tiger beetle — that live in the pineland. The approved plan divides what was once about 90 acres of forest scattered across 138 acres near Zoo Miami into two 20-plus acre preserves connected by a pathway, with the mall and apartments at the center.
The plan differs little from the proposal submitted by a Palm Beach County developer two years ago, despite more than 3,000 comments filed by critics with the agency during the review.
“What you have to realize is you’re talking about a private property owner’s rights,” said spokesman Ken Warren. “The Endangered Species Act is a tool we use to work with them to allow them to find a way to pursue their interests. It’s a delicate balance.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But conservationists and neighbors say that far from being balanced, the decision disregarded the Act’s aim to provide a safety net for imperiled plants and animals.
“It’s got to be one of the greatest derelictions of duty by the Service in South Florida and that’s because there’s so many endangered species,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Service also allowed developer Peter Cummings and his environmental consultant to develop their own formula to calculate damage caused by the project.
“They used this completely novel, untested, unscientific valuation matrix to cover the loss of these species which are already on the brink of extinction,” Lopez said. “There was no math or scientific explanation. It’s sort of like this black box of information.”
Cummings, president of Ram Realty, said through a spokesman that the project underwent extensive review that included increasing the amount of conservation land and reduced commercial development by 75,000 square feet.
When Cummings unveiled the project in 2014, criticism was swift from conservationists who had long hoped to protect the land under a Miami-Dade County program that had helped create Larry and Penny Thompson Park on 270 acres of nearby pineland. The University of Miami had been given the parcel, part of a former blimp base, by the U.S. government to use for educational purposes and for years left it largely undeveloped, using a few buildings and cages for primate research.
The university had planned to build an academic village, but after it ran into financial problems and the educational deed restriction expired, UM sold the land to Cummings for $22 million.
Only about two percent of the pine rockland that once covered South Florida’s spiny ridge remains, leaving little habitat for a host of native animals and plants that include the gopher tortoise, bonneted bat and indigo snake. Over the past three years, a number have been added to the endangered species list, including two butterflies, two ground herbs and the Miami tiger beetle, which was rediscovered on the property decades after researchers thought it had gone extinct.
Nearby residents have also sued to stop the project, claiming they weren’t properly notified. The project went largely unnoticed until a team of plant experts allowed onto the property to collect rare plants found far more than initial county surveys revealed. That case is still pending.
When asked when Cummings planned to start work, spokesman Ray Casas pointed to a December memo from County Mayor Carlos Gimenez saying the project could move forward once wildlife managers signed off on the conservation plan. On Tuesday, nearby workers said land-clearing equipment was already parked on the property.
The sudden announcement also angered conservationists who have been following and weighing in on the process over the last three years.
“No heads up? No delay to give people time to look at this knowing it’s very controversial?” asked attorney Dennis Olle, a board member of the North American Butterfly Association’s Miami chapter. “This might as well have come from the real estate and developers association or whatever you call them. These are our tax funds going to someone who’s supposed to protect our environment.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich