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Miami-Dade Commissioners reject mayor's veto on urban boundary. What's next?

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Jenny Staletovich
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WLRN
These wetlands in South Dade near the land targeted for the warehouse are part of a restoration plan that will attempt to revive the southern Everglades.

Overturning the veto clears the way for warehouses on coastal land targeted for Everglades restoration. South Florida water managers have been asked to intervene.

Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday overturned a veto by Mayor Daniella Levine Cava but may not have ended the fight over whether to move the decades-old boundary that protects wetlands and farms.

Levine Cava made a statement, then in less than six minutes, commissioners rejected the veto in favor of a 380-acre warehouse center in a coastal area targeted for Everglades restoration.

In her final appeal, Levine Cava urged outgoing commissioners to consider the lasting impact of the decision.

“This commission has done so much for our economy, for our transit, for our environment,” she said. “Don't let this last vote be your legacy.”

But the decision won’t likely be the final chapter. Environmental advocates have asked South Florida water managers, now planning a billion-dollar restoration project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to file a formal objection with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The DEO reviews changes to county growth management plans and could recommend denying the county request.

“It’s going to be the largest ticket item in Everglades restoration, so why in the heck would you want to screw it up right out of the gate?” said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.

The foundation and other advocates have spoken to a handful of district board members, Eikenberg said, in advance of their monthly meeting Friday. That was rescheduled after Hurricane Nicole hit Fort Myers and crossed the state. On Thursday, the Corps plans to outline its latest plans for the restoration project.

“They understand and they get it,” Eikenberg said.

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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
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The study area to revive Biscayne Bay and southern marshes covers a large area and could include restoring wetlands, building reservoirs, creating treatment marshes, plugging canals and constructing levees or seepage walls.

The logistics center was first proposed by developers more than a year ago, amid talks to expand the Homestead Air Reserve Base to allow expanded commercial cargo flights. An Amazon fulfillment center is being built nearby, less than a mile from a FedEx shipping center. Aligned Real Estate, the group of developers behind the logistics center, say that’s still not enough available warehouse space inside the boundary to meet growing demands.

But county staff has calculated a supply likely to last for years.

Without being able to prove the need, opponents have repeatedly argued that the developers have failed to meet a crucial threshold for moving the boundary created to limit sprawl and protect wetlands and farms.

While the boundary surrounds the entire county, the south end has become a pressure point, with an abundance of cheaper, undeveloped farm land sandwiched between Everglades marshes and Biscayne Bay. Environmentalists have fought for decades to preserve it to help restore the flow of freshwater both the bay and marshes need to survive. The plan now underway would combine several original plans for a sweeping project that plugs old canals, restores wetlands, creates new water-cleaning marshes and aims to replicate the natural water flow in the area,

A long list of groups, representing both farms and environmental interests, opposed the project, including the U.S. Department of Interior, the Miccosukee Tribe, state and county agriculture officials, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Monroe County.

In addition to restoration efforts, South Florida water managers could argue the project also interferes with floodplain management. The district is now working with the Army Corp and the county on revising a sprawling plan to protect Biscayne Bay from hurricane storm surge. An initial Corps plan was rejected by the county because it included too few natural barriers, like wetlands and mangroves that can weaken storm surges and hold floodwater. The new plan will attempt to expand those protections, particularly at the south end of the bay.

Other state agencies could also weigh in.

If the Department of Economic Opportunity recommends against moving the boundary, the county could drop the request. If it moves forward, the DEO could possibly appeal to a state administrative law judge, whose ruling would either be upheld or rejected by the governor and cabinet.

With all the planning underway, Eikenberg said It would have made more sense for the county to pause the application.

“That was the whole argument,” he said. “Just pause because it’s a massive amount of federal funding that’s going to come to Dade County.”

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