Environment

Over protests, FIU trustees approve football fields on nature preserve

Protesters objected Friday to Florida International University plans to build two football fields on part of the campus nature preserve.
Protesters objected Friday to Florida International University plans to build two football fields on part of the campus nature preserve. Miami Herald staff

Florida International University’s long-neglected nature preserve, largely maintained by volunteers and students over the decades is getting a new feature: football fields.

On Friday, over the objections of several dozen protesting students, the university’s board of trustees unanimously approved a controversial plan to build two athletic fields. Originally slated for nearby parking lots, they instead will go on about three acres at the north end of the preserve — in exchange for expanding the preserve to the south.

The savings from the cheaper alternative will be used to create a new, more viable wetlands habitat and provide money to maintain it, school officials said.

We are working as hard as we can for what’s in the best interest of the university.

FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg

“We want you to understand we are working as hard as we can for what’s in the best interest of the university,” FIU president Mark B. Rosenberg told protesters who packed the meeting.

But students fighting the plan say the deal is not a fair trade. The land planned for the swap includes an organic garden and other features they say will limit restoring wild areas to about 1.5 acres.

It really seems like we’re putting monetary gain over educational value.

Garden club member Amie Esteves

“It really seems like we’re putting monetary gain over educational value,” garden club member Amie Esteves said.

Since the plans were revealed in December, debate has spread among both students and faculty loyal to the quirky little preserve that sits in the middle of the sprawling campus and includes a stand of rare rock pineland. The forest found only in South Florida and parts of the Caribbean provide habitat for a menagerie of rare wildlife but have largely disappeared. The two fields would not cross into the rockland or nearby hardwood hammock, but would require filling a man-made pond that students have been working to rid of invasive plants.

In the weeks leading up to Friday’s meeting, groups met repeatedly to hammer out a better deal. Biology professor and South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard originally wrote administrators about concerns but said Friday he was won over by the promise of money to build a viable wetland.

$10,000Amount FIU now spends to maintain the preserve

“I found myself saying if you did it, here’s what we would need to compensate and I kept hearing the words ‘yes,’ ‘OK,’ ‘sure.’ [Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Jessell] was entirely willing to provide whatever mitigation compensation we need for this,” Stoddard said.

But students say the university, criticized in the past for proposing expansion plans that called for moving the nearby county fair to disappearing wetlands, should not be trading any natural land and pointed out that with the garden factored into the plan, natural areas in the preserve will shrink. A report obtained from Florida State University’s Florida Natural Areas Inventory late Friday lists five plants deemed endangered by the state within the preserve and two threatened plants.

“It’s really insulting,” said Joshua Munoz, who manages the organic garden and led a petition drive that collected about 7,000 signatures.

Jessell agreed but said the school is too pinched for space and the need for the fields is too great. FIU is the smallest main campus of any of the state’s universities, except the New College in Sarasota, and has only one athletic field. The deal also bumps the preserve’s budget from $10,000 a year to $80,000. Jessell also said the additional fields have nothing to do with a recent deal cut with the Miami Football Club, South Florida’s new professional soccer team, to use the campus stadium for home games.

“It’s good business to be able to bring in more revenues,” he said, “but they will have no access to these practice fields.”

Stoddard said the school also agreed to lock in the boundaries of the preserve and not use a portion for a future dorm as previously proposed.

“What this says to the trustees is they’re lucky to get this deal without an even bigger public fight and they better not screw it up,” he said.

An earlier version of this story reported that FIU is the only school in the Conferenece USA division with only one football practice field. The football team practices at FIU’s stadium, Ocean Beank Field, and does not use the campus athletic field.

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