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What Happens When The Trust To Save Endangered Land Stops Working? Miami-Dade May Get Another Hotel

patrick farrell thompson pineland.jpeg
Patrick Farrell
Miami Herald archives
Restored pinelands at Larry and Penny Thompson park near Zoo Miami.

More than four years ago, when Al Sunshine learned Miami-Dade County was pressing forward with plans to build a water park and hotels amid vanishing pine rockland across from his neighborhood near Zoo Miami, he turned to a program created decades ago to save endangered land.

Sunshine rushed to complete an application in time for an April 2016 deadline.

“I figured this was a match made in heaven,” said Sunshine, who applied to have a section of the old pineland cleared for Coast Guard housing decades ago added to a county list of property recommended for protection. “The county owned the property. They could not use the excuse: we don't have the money. They already bought it.”

His wasn’t the only application. Seven others were filed in 2016, including two other parcels near the zoo tied up in the development of a Walmart shopping center in the pinelands.

But between 2016 and 2020, none reached the citizen selection committee created to review applications.

When county commissioners vote Tuesday on a deal to lease land near the zoo for the Miami Wilds water park and two hotels, they will be asked to include the Coast Guard site despite the pending application.

The nearly 40-acre Coast Guard site sits on busy Coral Reef Drive, prime real estate for the larger, more upscale "four diamond” hotel developers have planned.

Richmond pineland property map.png
Miami-Dade County
An updated 2018 Miami-Dade management plan for the Richmond area calls for preserving what remains of the rock pineland. The county owns some, but not all of what's left.

“Clearly it’s an issue that needs to be brought to the attention of the county commission,” said attorney Dennis Olle, who submitted the two additional applications for land near the zoo for Tropical Audubon. Tropical Audubon and the Sierra Club also signed on to Sunshine’s application.

“For some reason, [the applications] weren’t even brought to the committee for consideration,” Olle said. “So that strikes me as odd.”

Olle suspects the more lavish hotel may be driving the deal. A 2018 financial report commissioned by the county found expected earnings from the water park and its "family" hotel were lower than what investors typically earn from such attractions. The report concluded project investors would be willing to accept the lower returns because they expect to build the more upscale hotel near the zoo’s entrance on Coral Reef Drive.

“In other words, yes, I'll build you a water park and yes, I'll build a family hotel there, too. But I also need the opportunity to develop a much more robust and expensive hotel that's going to make me a lot more money,” he said. “I guess that that's what developers do. They're in the business of developing. I don't begrudge them...but the county is doing this.”

2020 Miami Wilds rendering
A rendering of the Miami Wilds project included in a lease option county commissioners will vote on Tuesday shows the water park. Land for a hotel also included in the deal was not depicted.

The county’s environmental chief, Lee Hefty, whose Division of Environmental Resources Management oversees the land conservation program, blamed the delay on a bureaucratic snag: He says the county was unable to pull together the four-member internal staff review committee that reviews applications first.

Hefty said when director Janet Gil took over the program, called the Environmental Endangered Lands, or EEL, program in 2014, she asked about the staff review process, which had been done informally but not by committee. Hefty said he asked the county’s former ethics commission director, Joe Centorino, to weigh in. Centorino said the committee should be appointed by the mayor, Hefty said.

The committee’s four members include a representative from the parks department, the zoning department, Gil and the mayor’s office.

“We went through the process of having members appointed and before we could schedule a meeting, some of those members retired,” Hefty said. “Remember some of those things are not in the staff’s control. They have to make a recommendation to get an appointment from the mayor’s office.”

The small office, he said, was also processing acquisitions for about 1,200 acres previously nominated and managing about 25,000 acres already in the program.

“I’m not saying it’s OK it took four years. But it wasn’t intentional,” he said. “It wasn’t a delay.”

The lands program was created in the 1990s by voters worried about the fate of the county’s endangered lands and the perennial pressure in South Florida to develop. Voters agreed to a two-year tax to raise $10 million to create a trust to acquire and manage land. Over the years, the trust grew even as land was purchased: it now holds more than $25 million, with $13.5 million left to buy land and $11.6 million to manage the land.

The program became especially useful after Hurricane Andrew plowed across South Miami-Dade and triggered an exodus, said Michael Ross, a Florida International University forest ecologist who sat on the citizen selection committee from 2007 to 2015.

“In the years after Hurricane Andrew, people were just selling their properties down in South Dade that had pine forest on it,” he said. “And they were just scarfed up by developers.”

Bartram's hairstreak.jpg
Roger Hammer
Bartram's hairstreak butterflies are among the endangered species that live in pine rocklans.

The staff committee finally started meeting again in May and began processing the pending applications. But the parks department asked to postpone three: 30 acres of mangroves in Crandon Park, 1,315 acres on Virginia Key and Sunshine’s application for land in the Miami Wilds project the department is pushing. The department did not respond to a request for an interview.

When Sunshine and Olle filed their applications, a bitter fight was being waged over the pineland around the zoo the program was designed to protect.

Environmentalists, including county environmental staff, have long fought to protect what was once the U.S. Naval Air Station Richmond because the military's presence meant the land had remained largely undeveloped over the years. Less than 2 percent of pinelands remain outside Everglades National Park, inhabited by endangered bonneted bats, butterflies, the Miami tiger beetle and a host of plants. The pineland is so rare that a county management plan describes it as “just shy of extinction.”

When the military began shedding some of the land after World War II, Miami-Dade County got about 1,100 acres. Chunks also went to the University of Miami.

The county used part of it for Larry and Penny Thompson Park, eventually the zoo and the Martinez pineland preserve.

In 1994, the county drafted a management plan tailored for the Richmond site because it was so large. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Interior, which had a stake in the disappearing Florida bonneted bats, tiger beetles, butterflies and a greenhouse of tiny plants inhabiting the pineland, paid for the plan.

The plan made clear that the pineland needed to be saved and set a simple list of objectives: a joint management plan with the feds, a monitoring program that included controlling invasive plants and animals, a plan to regularly burn the pineland needed to maintain it and plans for restoring parts that were degraded.

The county succeeded with pineland in the zoo, the Martinez Pineland and Larry and Penny Thompson Park, although a park botanist at the time said it was no easy feat. But the push to develop, especially after Hurricane Andrew, remained. In 2006, voters signed off on a Disney-style theme park near the zoo, as long as it didn’t harm the area’s environmentally sensitive surroundings. That same year, the county bought the 39.45-acre Coast Guard housing site for $16.2 million.

al sunshine walmart pineland.jpeg
Al Sunshine
About 140 acres of land that included endangered pineland was sold by the University of Miami to a Palm Beach County developer to build a shopping center, apartments and two pineland preserves.

Against this backdrop of increasing development pressure, conservationists hired by Miami-Dade to look at pineland management warned the county to be careful about what it allows to be built next to its endangered pineland.

“Construction of hospitals, schools, apartments and hotels around EEL sites should be discouraged,” reported the management plan prepared by the URS Corporation and the Institute for Regional Conservation.

Instead UM, the third largest land owner, decided to develop nearly 140 acres that had become choked with invasive Burma reed and overgrown with trees despite county warnings to better maintain it.

UM had planned to use its land for a south campus and student housing. But in 2014 — two years after government deed restrictions requiring educational use of the donated land expired the private university cut a deal to sell the land to a Palm Beach County developer who wanted to build a Walmart shopping center and 900 apartments.

Miami-Dade also re-upped plans for the theme park, with water slides, hotels and shopping, triggering protests, petitions and lawsuits.

That set the stage for a hugely bitter fight that has continued to simmer today.

To try to referee the fight, the county updated the 1994 Richmond management plan in 2018. That plan recommitted the county to protecting the forest that it says merits “the highest standard for protections, restoration and management, now and for future generations.”

Given that mission, Sunshine and Olle assumed their applications would be quickly reviewed.

“We did everything that we needed to do to the letter,” Sunshine said. “We documented it. We got everything we needed. And they completely not only dropped the ball, they completely blocked the entire consideration.”

Sunshine and Olle’s applications, along with six others filed in 2016 were not reviewed until the summer of 2020. For four years — from its last meeting in June 2016 until July 2020 — the citizen selection committee was convened by county staff just two times. Before 2015, it averaged meetings twice each year. The county ordinance that governs the program calls for meetings four times a year.

Committee chair Michael Rosenberg was unaware of the internal problems. When asked, he said he was unsure why the committee was never summoned to vote on applications.

“I don’t have an answer for that,” he said and explained that he was focused on getting the water park moved to a location in Homestead.

Ross, the FIU ecologist and former committee member, was taken aback that the process got paralyzed.

“They weren’t the most exciting meetings,” he said. But not meeting? “That’s insane.”

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Walter Michot
Florida bonneted bats are among the endangered animals found in pineland. Bat boxes installed by the zoo around the area are now occupied by bats that use the wide open area to hunt for food.

Olle, whose applications were finally voted on by the selection committee in July, has a theory for why the Coast Guard housing land that the county owns and wants to offer Miami Wilds developers was postponed.

“The only conclusion you can reach,” he said, “is that the county wanted to avoid being put in the uncomfortable and, obviously in my opinion, indefensible position of being the unwilling seller to itself.”