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Opponents Vow To Fight After DeSantis, Cabinet Reverse Judge's Decision To Block Highway Across Everglades

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Tim Chapman
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Miami Herald Archives
Opponents to a propsed highway that would cross these wetlands in the Bird Drive Basin say it violates Miami-Dade's growth plan that promises to protect wetlands and farmland.

Opponents of a 13-mile highway extension across Everglades wetlands say Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Cabinet violated the law when they tossed a judge’s order blocking the road and set a dangerous precedent statewide.

Opponents of a 13-mile highway extension across Everglades wetlands say Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Cabinet violated the law when they tossed a judge’s order blocking the road — and set a dangerous precedent statewide.

They plan to appeal within 30 days, said attorney Richard Grosso, who represents Tropical Audubon.

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The state’s leaders “didn't seem to care much about the precedent they set for how strong [growth management plans] will be in the future,” said Grosso. “Many of the rulings were gratuitous. They just seemed to be calculated, even, to render the [Miami-Dade’s] plan weaker going forward.”

The order was approved in the final minutes of Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, in fewer than 4 minutes. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried voted against it, saying the Cabinet was siding with developers over wetlands.

The extension across the Bird Drive Basin south of the Tamiami Trail was touted by U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez when he was Miami-Dade County mayor as a solution to grinding congestion in South Dade. The MDX Expressway Authority launched a web site and promised residents it would ease their commutes.

But environmentalists complained the highway proposal strays beyond the urban development boundary set by the county to protect wetlands and farms. The proposed route crosses wetlands that were once part of the headwaters for Shark River Slough; a wetland mitigation bank created to make up for wetlands destroyed by development; and land targeted for an Everglades restoration project.

During a hearing two years ago, the county’s own planner testified that the road would shave just six minutes off the commute from West Kendall.

That testimony, along with the county’s promise to protect wetlands and prevent sprawl, led Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk to find the proposal violated the county’s comprehensive development master plan.

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Much of the land in the Bird Drive Basin is already publicly owned, purchased with money intended for Everglades restoration.

In overturning her order, DeSantis and Cabinet members concluded that many of Van Wyk’s findings of facts, like the commute times, should instead be considered interpretations of the law, open to reversal. That, Grosso said, violates a basic principle of the law.

“The judge or the jury who's in the room during the trial are the only ones who get to decide what the facts are. An appeals court, or the governor and Cabinet reading the cold, hard transcripts hundreds of miles away, they don't get to see all that,” he said. “That’s the whole purpose of having an administrative law judge hear a dispute and decide what the facts are, so that the ultimate decisions are made based on the facts and aren't just political votes.”

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The judge's original order concluded, based on testimony, that improvements in commute times would be meager. Here's the state's revision.

When the Cabinet initially rejected Van Wyk’s order in June, DeSantis said he believed the county had met the threshold for its legal interpretations of the amendment that allowed the road, meaning the Cabinet should defer to local authority.

He also said he didn’t think the highway would ever get permitted by environmental regulators.

“The governor correctly acknowledged in June that this project is not likely to receive its environmental permit,” Grosso said. “What that means is that this area is unsuitable for the highway under this planning law, that means it should have been found not in compliance and rejected.”

In tossing out the judge’s order, Grosso also said the decision could undermine comp plans across the state.

“If Dade County gets to decide that it's more important to shave six minutes off of a two-way commute to compromise Everglades restoration,” he said, “then you may as well repeal the state land use planning law.”