Leslye Jacobs is a longtime environmental advocate and a once-proud University of Miami Hurricane. But two weeks ago, when she learned that the university had sold a swath of endangered pine rockland forest to a Palm Beach Gardens-based developer that planned to build a Walmart, Jacobs, the director of an education nonprofit, was disgusted. So she started a petition against the development on MoveOn.org.
"I saw the news and right away I was just so angry," Jacobs tells Riptide. "I was feeling physically sick about it."
The university sold the 88-acre parcel, at Coral Reef Drive and SW 124th Avenue, adjacent to Zoo Miami, to Ram Realty Services for $22 million earlier this month. The university had owned the land -- home to some of the state's last pine rockland habitat and the several unique animal species it supports, like the Bartram's hairstreak butterfly -- since the 1940s, using it mostly for research. Besides the Walmart, the proposed development, called Coral Reef Commons, is slated to include an LA Fitness, Chik-fil-A, Chili's, and 900 apartments, with 40 acres set aside for a preserve.
"The environment will be a valuable asset for the community we plan to create at Coral Reef Commons," Ram said in a statement on its website July 18, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent the company a letter expressing concern about the project. "And scientists from Zoo Miami, Fairchild Tropical Botanica Garden, and the Institute for Regional Conservation are already in the process of relocating vulnerable plant species."
The company met with Fish and Wildlife officials July 22, although no decisions about the project were made.
But the meeting and the company's lip service have done little to quell a rising outcry against the project. One online petition, started by activist Chris Wolverton on thepetitionsite.com, has attracted nearly 35,000 signatures, and Jacobs' now has more than 8,000.
When Jacobs reaches 10,000, the activist tells Riptide, she and her team plan to present the names to Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Gov. Rick Scott, whom she hopes will be sympathetic to what she sees as an all-too-rare South Florida environmentalist movement.
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"No one really realizes what's at stake," Jacobs says. "There is so much more conservationist activity in other parts of the world and the U.S. than there is here, and we really need to change that."