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Will A Walmart Be Allowed On Rare Habitat In Miami?

Will A Walmart Be Allowed On Rare Habitat In Miami?
Pine rockland forests form on limestone outcrops with very thin soil.

For years, private citizens have been battling developers, the government and the University of Miami over a rare ecosystem. “Pine rocklands,” a habitat characterized by a limestone ridge and often covered with pine tree species and saw palmetto plants, once made up much of South Florida. Now, less than 2% of the original ecosystem is estimated to remain in Miami-Dade, and it is home to endangered plants and animals.

Yesterday, a judge heard arguments regarding a small remaining parcel where developers want to build a Walmart, an LA Fitness and apartments.

The federal government gave 138 acres to the University of Miami in the 1980s and '90s. In 2006, the university moved to rezone the land and build apartments and an educational center while also maintaining the forest.

“We wanted to demonstrate that you could protect the environment and build a town,” then-UM President Donna Shalala (now a congresswoman) said at the time.

But the university in 2014 sold more than half the parcel, 88 acres, for $22M to a Palm Beach-based developer, Ram Realty Services, founded by developer Peter Cummings. Ram proposed apartments and a shopping center to be called Coral Reef Commons. 

Activists challenged the development in a federal lawsuit which alleged that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not have given Ram a permit. That ended in a confidential settlement, and last year, Ram was allowed to start clearing the site.

Then, other citizens challenged the project in circuit court on different grounds. 

According to the group fighting the project, the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition, 16 zoning variances were granted, but only two had been properly described in public notices. In a Facebook post, the MPRC explained that a 2013 notice in the Miami Herald made it look like the zoning changes were for the “environmentally responsible academic village that UM has been talking about since 2006 ... [and hid] the fact that a big-box shopping center and apartments were going in."

An uproar ensued when neighbors and environmentalists came to understand the commercial scope of the project. Many criticized Shalala for her dealings and ties to homebuilder Lennar, but she went on to win a seat in Congress last year regardless. 

In October 2017, two citizens, Ross Hancock and Belen Valladares, sued Miami-Dade County, the University of Miami and two entities run by the developer for failing to give proper notice. The plaintiffs hoped the court would overturn the numerous variances and require new zoning hearings.

The developers, however, asked that the lawsuit be thrown out. Yesterday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Spencer Eig heard arguments on a motion for summary judgement but did not make a decision in the case.  

A message left for Ram Realty was not immediately returned Wednesday. Kent Harrison Robbins, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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