Developer to Submit Habitat Conservation Plan for Controversial Walmart Project

The developers aren't giving up yet.

Earlier this week, Ram Realty Services, the West Palm Beach-based developer behind the proposed Coral Reef Commons project -- highly controversial because it would develop critically endangered pine rockland habitat -- met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials and agreed to submit a habitat conservation plan in conjunction with a special permit application. Both the permit and conservation plan need to be approved by the federal agency before the project can proceed.

"We intend to fully cooperate with the agencies involved, and we look forward to reaching an amicable agreement and showcasing how Ram balances its commitment to the environment with its dedication to creating high-quality communities," Peter Cummings, the company's chairman, said in a news release provided to Riptide.

See also: Thousands Sign Petitions Against Walmart Development on Endangered Pine Rockland

The proposed project, which, in addition to 408 apartments, would feature a Walmart, LA Fitness, Chick-fil-A, and Chili's, has been dogged by controversy for months. In July, after it was announced that the University of Miami had sold the 88 acres for the development near Zoo Miami, environmentalists protested because the development would be built on pine rockland forest, a now extremely rare habitat that's the unique home to several species, including the Florida bonneted bat.

In August, the USFWS announced that two butterfly species found in the habitat, the Bartram's scrub-hairstreak and the Florida leafwing, would be designated as endangered, in addition to the pine rockland habitat itself. The designations made killing the species illegal, although they had little teeth to actually stop Ram; the developer pledged environmental consideration but also said it would move forward with the project. "The [UFSWS] and Ram are working collaboratively to balance environmental preservation with job creation and economic development in South Miami-Dade," Ram said in a statement then.

But in September, the USFWS announced that two flower species found in the habitat, the Carter's small-flowered flax and the Florida brickellbush, would also be listed as endangered, and then earlier this month Miami-Dade County officials, citing the federal listings, announced it was revoking the developer's permits until USFWS officials granted approval for the project.

The USFWS has advised Ram to come up with the habitat plan demonstrating the project's environmental stewardship, as well as to apply for the permit allowing for "taking of" -- killing -- the species in exception to the listings. The whole process, said Mathew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, could drag on for months, if not years.

"The bottom line is that neither this project nor the Miami Wilds project slated for another part of the Richmond Pine Rocklands ever should have happened," Schwartz said. "I don't think [the county] really knew, when they approved Miami Wilds back in 2006, that there were all these endangered species on the property."

At this point, Schwartz added, it still isn't too late to fully restore the property and adjoining area into a habitat preserve, as the UFSWS and environmentalists are advocating for.

"Once you build a Walmart, that's not a restorable property at that point."

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Trevor Bach