Developer defends Walmart in rare forest

An architect’s rendering shows a Walmart proposed for an area near Zoo Miami containing endangered pine rocklands.
An architect’s rendering shows a Walmart proposed for an area near Zoo Miami containing endangered pine rocklands. Ram Realty Services.

The developer behind a controversial Walmart shopping center, facing angry neighbors and environmentalists for the first time in public, vowed to make the project a paragon for building on environmentally sensitive land.

Peter Cummings, chairman of Palm Beach County-based Ram Realty Services, said that four preserves planned for about a third of the 137-acre development near Zoo Miami on endangered pine rockland may even help scientists understand the disappearing habitat.

“We think we have an opportunity to create a standard for new knowledge for the balance of the Richmond pine rockland,” Cummings said late Thursday during an often heated meeting called by the Kendall Federation of Homeowners’ Associations.

Setting aside the preserves was required by Miami-Dade County, which strictly limits building in the forest that hosts a menagerie of rare animals and plants found no place else, including five species added to the federal endangered species list in the last year. The Walmart is slated for a corner of 2,200 acres around the zoo called the Richmond pine rockland, which makes up the largest remaining fragment of the rare forest outside Everglades National Park.

But environmentalists and residents argued that carving up the land will further damage the shrinking habitat and imperil wildlife, including endangered bats and butterflies that forage there. In addition to the Walmart, the Coral Reef Commons project includes an LA Fitness, a Chili’s, other restaurants and about 900 apartments. About 43 acres are split into four preserves on either side of the shopping center and apartment complex.

“If a butterfly has to cross a six-lane highway to get to another part of pine rockland, that is not good,” said Sandy Koi, an entomologist who lives in the area.

During the three-hour meeting, the developer was frequently interrupted as he defended the project. Cummings said afterward he hoped to show residents the project’s benefits, including jobs and increased tax revenue. He also took issue with it being called a strip mall.

“It’s a mixed-use development,” he said.

The audience, split among homeowners and environmentalists, found fault with nearly every aspect of the project, from traffic to Walmart’s effect on local business. Concern about environmental damage drew the harshest complaints.

“This is a treasure and we have it in our own backyard,” said Laura Reynolds, executive director of Tropical Audubon, one of the few groups that opposed plans by the University of Miami to develop the land a decade ago.

The land had been part of an old blimp station closed in the 1940s. In 1981 and 1997, after designating it surplus land, the federal government gave about 135 acres to the university. Over the years, UM used the land mostly for research but decided to build an academic village and had the land rezoned from agricultural use in 2004. When that fell through, UM began shopping around for developers and in 2011 submitted plans with Ram for the shopping center. Ram paid $22million for the land but Cummings said the company has spent much more over the last three years developing it.

Federation president Michael Rosenberg said he also invited UM officials and County Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district covers the area, but they declined.

Cummings told residents he was unaware of the endangered bats and butterflies possibly on the land when he struck the deal. He said an environmental survey — started after U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials notified him in August that he was in danger of breaking the law without obtaining federal permits — is about two-thirds complete.

While endangered species do not stop development, their presence means the land must be carefully managed. And with pine rockland, that could be challenging. Fires must be set every three to seven years to replicate seasonal wildfires that once whipped across the Everglades and kept the tree canopy thin to allow the small endangered plants sprouting from the rocky forest floor, said Frank Ridgley, a wildlife veterinarian and head of conservation and research at Zoo Miami.

Only 2 percent of the forest — much of it in disconnected small pieces — remains and is severely threatened by urban sprawl, climate change, invasive species and pesticides, he said. It represents a rare collection of species in a single habitat found only in South Florida and a few places in the Bahamas and Cuba.

“It’s the most biologically diverse habitat in South Florida,” said Ridgley, who has spotted rare species like the Miami tiger beetle and rim rock crowned snake on neighboring county forest. “It’s a biodiversity hotspot.”