Activists lose last legal battle to protect rare Miami forest from Walmart development

Endangered Pine Rockland

Frank Ridgley, head of conservation and research at Zoo Miami, talks about the endangered pine rockland
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Frank Ridgley, head of conservation and research at Zoo Miami, talks about the endangered pine rockland

Activists fighting to preserve a slice of one of the world’s rarest forests lost what was likely the last legal battle to stop the imperiled ecosystem from turning into a Walmart-anchored development.

One of the last remnants in Miami-Dade of pine rockland, a forest that is home to the endangered Miami tiger beetle and more than 20 protected species of animals and plants found no place else, is being reduced to two small preserves within Coral Reef Commons, a mixed-use project spread across about 140 acres next to Zoo Miami. A 2017 lawsuit challenging the project’s zoning process was struck down last week, clearing the way for the big-box store to replace plants like the deltoid spurge, a tiny endangered herb that is only found at that spot.

The legal hearing was too late to save much of the forest anyway. Bulldozers have already cleared much of the ground, and the concrete foundation of a strip mall can be seen from Coral Reef Drive, near the entrance of the site. One morning this week, workers were laying the roof on dozens of three-story buildings that seem near completion.

For years, environmentalists and private citizens have tried to protect the shrinking ecosystem that exists only in south Miami-Dade. The Richmond pine rockland, a sparse forest dotted with slash pines, is inhabited by more than 20 protected plants and animals. One of its endangered residents, the iridescent Miami tiger beetle, is so rare it hadn’t been seen for decades until it was rediscovered on the site in 2007.

The forest once covered much of the 55-mile-long rock ridge that stretches south from central Miami to Homestead. Paved over by development, small patches survived, making up about 3,000 acres outside Everglades National Park, or about 2% of the original area.

tiger beetle
In 2007, researchers discovered the rare tiger beetle living in the pineland now slated for a Walmart-anchored development.

Endangered butterflies such as the bright orange Florida Leafwing and the gray Bartram’s Hairstreak, whose wings have thin white and black lines with tiny splashes of rust, also call this habitat home. The University of Miami, which received the land as a donation from the federal government in the ‘80s and ‘90s, sold a portion to Peter Cummings, founder of Palm Beach-based Ram Realty Services, for $22 million in 2013. The developer angered environmentalists a year later when he unveiled a plan for a mall and apartment buildings in the area.

Last week a Miami-Dade circuit judge dismissed the October 2017 lawsuit by two activists who argued the description in a public notice advertising a 2013 rezoning hearing failed to adequately characterize the huge commercial scope of the project. The activists, Belen Valladares and Ross Hancock, claimed the layman’s description didn’t inform the public that the plans for the site — a 138-acre parcel off Coral Reef Drive — included a large shopping area, let alone a Walmart, an LA Fitness and 900 apartments.

“The notice was far from adequate, and I wonder if the lack of critical information wasn’t an attempt to mislead the public about the project,’’ Kent Harrison Robbins, who represents the activists, said after a hearing on May 28.

The defendants, developer Ram Realty, Miami-Dade and the University of Miami, said notice was appropriately given. At the hearing, attorneys argued that Valladares and Hancock lacked standing because they didn’t live near the forest and wouldn’t be affected by the development.

After the June 10 dismissal of the case, Robbins said his clients were “concerned that the court has placed too much emphasis on property ownership as a prerequisite to the enforcement of the right of notice to a public hearing.’’ He added that his clients were considering an appeal.

Cummings said through his attorney George LeMieux that he was “pleased’’ with the conclusion of the case, and that work would continue at the development. He also said preservation efforts are being carried out under a pine rockland protection plan as agreed with federal authorities.

That’s precisely what environmentalists were concerned with when they filed a separate lawsuit over federal approval given to the developer to essentially destroy what should have been protected habitat. In December 2017 the Center for Biological Diversity, Tropical Audubon Society, Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition and South Florida Wildlands Association sued the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service and urged the court to overturn the project’s approval. They said the risk of losing the rare butterflies, the tiger beetle and several other species would be “a tragedy that can’t be undone.” But that case ended in a confidential settlement and Ram was allowed to start clearing the site last year.