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Miami-Dade moves boundary that protects wetlands and farms to make way for warehouses

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North Carolina State University
The urban development boundary was created to protect Miami-Dade County's coastal wetlands.

On their fifth try, developers hoping to build a sprawling warehouse center outside Miami-Dade County’s urban development boundary convinced county commissioners to move the decades-old line that protects wetlands and farms.

But the 8-4 vote could be vetoed by Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who opposed the move and said afterwards that she was “weighing” her options.

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“We've heard that there is now an impressive list of perks that have been offered, but they do not change the simple facts,” Cava said after Tuesday's public hearing. “This project has no need. There's no plan. It's in the wrong place.”

The mayor has 10 days from the final adoption by the commission to block the decision. However that veto could, in turn, be overturned by the commission with a two-thirds vote.

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Google Earth
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The warehouse logistics center is planned for 380 acres south of Florida's Turnpike, pictured at the top left and located about a mile and a half from coastal mangroves.

The approved project would cover about 380 acres of mostly farmland wedged between Southwest 122nd Avenue and mangroves. It’s also designated as a coastal high hazard zone, where increasing sea levels are expected to worsen flooding particularly from powerful hurricane storm surges.

In their previous trips before the commission, Aligned Real Estate, led by developer Jose Hevia, halved the size of the project from about 800 acres in an attempt to win over the commission. Aligned also offered to buy and donate environmentally endangered lands identified by the county.

On Tuesday, the group upped the amount to 622 acres, winning the approval of Commissioner Raquel Regalado and the majority vote needed to pass a change to the county’s comprehensive development plan. Commissioners Danielle Cohen Higgins, whose district includes the project, Eileen Higgins, Rene Garcia and Sally Heyman voted against it.

Since proposing the project in 2021, amidst speculation that Amazon would become a tenant with aims of potentially shipping cargo through the nearby Homestead Air Reserve Base, Aligned has argued the project would bring jobs and reduce traffic. The group also claimed that the project is needed, a threshold required to change the boundary, because of a shortage in warehouse space inside the line.

But county planning staff found sufficient space remains and recommended rejecting the request.

The U.S. Department of Interior also opposes the project and sent its director of Everglades restoration to Tuesday’s hearing.

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Miami-Dade County
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If a Category 5 hurricane hit the area, storm surge would be at least 12 feet deep.

“I'm not against development. I've been here my entire life,” said Adam Gelber, the director of restoration initiatives. “What I am for is restoration and the benefits that come…tied to the water and the quality of it.”

The department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District and Miami-Dade are now in the midst of planning a project that includes the area. The project is part of a federal restoration plan started in 2000. Expected to cost billions, it is intended to clean and move more freshwater into southern marshes and Biscayne Bay, where more than 21 square miles of seagrass meadows have died.

Three years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that poor water quality was leading to a “regime change,” in the southern part of the bay and a cascade of worsening conditions. Last month, the bay’s north end suffered another fish kill, a historically rare occurrence. Since 2020, there have been at least three.

State agriculture officials, the Miccosukee Tribe, Monroe County, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Everglades Coalition, the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, Cutler Bay and others also oppose it. The county's own agricultural practices board passed a resolution objecting.

“The list of people in opposition to this application is incredibly long. Yet the ten of you have somehow the incredible influence to overcome all of that,” Cohen Higgins said to the group of attorneys, developers and their representatives attending Tuesday’s meeting. “It does look like this is cooked. It's so cooked, it's burnt at this point.”

Based on a county staff assessment, Cohen Higgins also said the developers stand to earn a hefty profit by moving the project inside the boundary, where comparable land is about five times more valuable.

“We will be increasing the land value of this 380 acres from approximately $20.5 million, with one vote, to $86.7 million, just by moving the urban development boundary,” she said. “Forty-six million just like that.”

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Aligned Real Estate
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The original project was scaled back from about 800 acres to 379.

In changing her vote, Regalado praised the additional land donation. Aligned said the land would come from a list of properties designated by the county’s Environmentally Endangered Lands program, which purchases land from willing sellers. But in recent years, it has struggled to keep up with the applications it receives, meeting only twice between 2016 and 2020.

“It's not perfect. It's not easy. And some people are not going to like it,” Regalado said. “But I feel that we would be doing something. We would actively be doing something for preservation.”

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.