Rare Miami Rain Forest Will Be Bulldozed To Make Way For Mall

You probably weren’t aware that Florida had a rain forest, or that there was a forest habitat for animals in Miami.

Well…it won’t be there for much longer.

Activists have lost the legal fight to protect a rare Miami forest from being made into a Walmart development.

One of the last remnants of Miami-Dade’s pine rockland forest, which is home to more than 20 protected species of animals and plants, will be reduced to two small preserves while the rest is converted into a large Walmart-anchored development. A 2017 lawsuit challenging the decision to clear out most of the forest was defeated last week, allowing the development to be built.

Activists have been trying to save the shrinking forest for years, and this type of ecosystem only exists in south Miami-Dade. The forest once covered most of the 55-mile-long rock ridge between Miami and Homestead, but today only about 2% survives due to development. Endangered species such as the Miami tiger beetle and the bright Florida Leafwing butterfly call this habitat home.

Deltoid spurge, shown here in 2005, is one of the endangered plants found only on pine rockland. The pine rockland found near Zoo Miami is the largest intact tract outside Everglades National Park. A 2015 study found 55 plant species in the tract, far more than botanists found in rockland in the park.

The University of Miami, which received the land as a donation from the federal government in the 1980s and 90s, sold a portion to Peter Cummings, founder of Ram Realty Services, for $22 million in 2013. Since then, Cummings’s plan to build a mall and apartments in the area has angered environmentalists.

A Miami-Dade circuit judge dismissed the 2017 lawsuit by two activists, Belen Valladares and Ross Hancock, who argued that the original 2013 rezoning hearing regarding the development failed to describe the huge commercial scope of the project.

A Miami tiger beetle, one of many endangered species who will be affected by this construction.

Much of the land has already been cleared, and the outline of a strip mall foundation can be seen from the site’s entrance. The previously mentioned activists may be considering an appeal of the court decision.

Last week a Miami-Dade circuit judge dismissed the October 2017 lawsuit by two activists who argued the description in a public notice advertising a 2013 rezoning hearing failed to adequately characterize the huge commercial scope of the project. The activists, Belen Valladares and Ross Hancock, claimed the layman’s description didn’t inform the public that the plans for the site — a 138-acre parcel off Coral Reef Drive — included a large shopping area, let alone a Walmart, an LA Fitness and 900 apartments.

“The notice was far from adequate, and I wonder if the lack of critical information wasn’t an attempt to mislead the public about the project,’’ Kent Harrison Robbins, who represents the activists, said after a hearing on May 28.

The Bright Florida Leafwing butterfly, another endangered species in this habitat.

The defendants, developer Ram Realty, Miami-Dade and the University of Miami, said notice was appropriately given. At the hearing, attorneys argued that Valladares and Hancock lacked standing because they didn’t live near the forest and wouldn’t be affected by the development.

After the June 10 dismissal of the case, Robbins said his clients were “concerned that the court has placed too much emphasis on property ownership as a prerequisite to the enforcement of the right of notice to a public hearing.’’ He added that his clients were considering an appeal.

Cummings said through his attorney George LeMieux that he was “pleased’’ with the conclusion of the case, and that work would continue at the development. He also said preservation efforts are being carried out under a pine rockland protection plan as agreed with federal authorities.

That’s precisely what environmentalists were concerned with when they filed a separate lawsuit over federal approval given to the developer to essentially destroy what should have been protected habitat. In December 2017 the Center for Biological Diversity, Tropical Audubon Society, Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition and South Florida Wildlands Association sued the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service and urged the court to overturn the project’s approval. They said the risk of losing the rare butterflies, the tiger beetle and several other species would be “a tragedy that can’t be undone.” But that case ended in a confidential settlement and Ram was allowed to start clearing the site last year.