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Miami-Dade Approves Controversial Amusement Park Near Rare Pineland

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

Commissioners approved the Miami Wilds park plan and an option for a larger hotel after vowing to protect bats and remove pineland from the deal.

Miami-Dade commissioners approved a controversial water theme park near Zoo Miami Tuesday — despite worries over a new $9 parking fee for zoo visitors.

Environmentalists for years have opposed the project because endangered Florida bonneted bats hunt for food in the zoo parking lot where developers plan to build the Miami Wilds attraction, a hotel and shops. A nearby site where developers want to build a larger hotel contains rare pine rockland, used by rare butterflies, the Miami tiger beetle and a host of disappearing plants.

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But Tuesday, the park fee dominated objections from county commissioners.

The county parks department said 50 percent of revenue from parking would go to the zoo, providing a new source of money for improvements. But when it became clear that the percentage was actually calculated by attendance to the two attractions — and not a true split — commissioners objected.

“So we’re just sneaking an increase in here?” asked Commissioner Joe Martinez. “That little detail, you all left out. You didn’t put in there that parking for the zoo was going up. I personally think you took advantage of the situation with Miami Wilds.”

Under the lease agreement for the project, the county would give developers — including architect Bernard Zyscovich, developer Paul Lambert and attorney Michael Diaz — $13.5 million to improve the zoo parking lot. The zoo and the theme park would then divvy up the fees collected from the shared parking based on regular audits of attendance.

Commissioners worried the new fee would make it harder for families visiting the zoo in Kendall.

“There is no split,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman. Miami Wilds is “going to keep 100 percent of what you’re getting and then you’re going to charge at the zoo.”

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.

Martinez, Heyman and Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who opposed the project over environmental worries, asked to remove the fee. But Lambert said developers needed it to make the water park successful.

Concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, along with ongoing environmental concerns, renewed criticism of the project — approved as part of an entertainment complex around the zoo in 2006.

Voters endorsed expanding entertainment attractions, as long as sensitive land, including rare pine rockland, wasn’t impacted. The zoo shares what was once a naval blimp base with the largest stand of pineland outside Everglades National Park.

The theme park originally covered a much larger, 136-acre footprint that stretched from Coral Reef Drive, where the county owns a former Coast Guard housing site, south to the zoo’s entrance. Much of the area was parking lot, but it also contained surviving stands of the old pineland.

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.

But when the development of a nearby Walmart and apartments on neighboring pineland drew attention to the increasing number of vanishing species, the developers scaled back the amusement park, shops and 200-room hotel to about 27 acres in the parking lot near the zoo’s entrance.

While it received little attention, the deal also includes an option to negotiate another lease for a "four diamond" more upscale hotel on the Coast Guard housing site that included pineland.

In 2016, environmentalists applied to have the land included in a county land conservation program. But the application remains pending because the county failed to convene a staff review panel made up of four county employees.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava asked to exclude the pineland on the Coast Guard site from the lease option. She also asked to extend the time for working out details of the project, to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service time to designate critical habitat for the bat.

The Service missed a 2014 deadline for designating the habitat, but vowed to complete the work after the Center for Biological Diversity sued in 2018. Parks officials said lighting around the zoo would also be bat friendly.

Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district includes the zoo and who led efforts to revive the southern end of the county following Hurricane Andrew, has repeatedly fended off criticism — saying the project is needed to create jobs and bring more money to the zoo. The new parking fee, he said, is part of the cost of those improvements.

“You go to the Seaquarium, you pay $10 to park. You go to Jungle Island, you pay $10 to park. You go to the museums downtown, you pay more,” he said. “Like [former county commissioner] Art Teele said, everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

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