Once upon a time, Miami-Dade County almost had a major amusement park meant to rival Disney World and Universal Studios.
The plan to construct a theme park on Zoo Miami property near environmentally sensitive land was seemingly killed by a beetle around 2016. But the project didn't die. Instead, it has morphed into a plan to build a water park on top of a parking lot at the zoo.
Miami Wilds Park was meant to be a massive theme park adjacent to Zoo Miami near Kendall. Miami-Dade voters agreed in 2006 to allow construction of the project, originally meant to feature iconography from 20th Century Fox titles such as Ice Age and Rio, as long as the land was not environmentally sensitive.
The original plan called for the Zoo Miami Entertainment Area to stretch from the zoo's parking lot across SW 124th Avenue up to Coral Reef Drive. The project was to include a water park, a hotel, a convention center, a parking area, and a theme park with rides and attractions.
The problem was that the proposed construction would have been in close proximity to Miami's Richmond Pine Rocklands, a type of rare forest unique to South Florida and the Bahamas that's home to many endangered species, including the Miami tiger beetle and the Florida bonneted bat.
In the latest iteration of the plan, the water park would be confined to the main parking lot of the zoo, with additional parking to be built east of SW 124th Avenue.
Since the 2006 vote, the Miami tiger beetle was designated as endangered in 2016, and Disney bought Fox in 2019. But the Miami Wilds Park refuses to go away. Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district includes the Zoo Miami land, wants to push a plan to break ground on the water park as fast as possible. Moss, who has been a commissioner for the past 27 years, is leaving his post later this year because of newly enacted term limits.
Last week, Moss requested to have the Miami Wilds proposal skip the Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs Committee and move straight to today's commission meeting. The request was denied, and the item was pulled from the agenda.
Normally, proposals and contracts go through committee hearings and are open to public scrutiny before the full commission votes. But in a preliminary version of the agenda item, the resolution called for a waiver of the four-week advance notice to the public regarding approval. Moss says he wanted to push the plan past the committee because voters agreed to a park back in 2006 and he wanted to make good on that commitment.
"My hope is to have it done as quickly as possible so the developer can lock in their resources," Moss tells New Times.
Moss says the plans for Miami Wilds have been scaled back to only include the water park and a 100-room family-friendly hotel, as well as some retail stores. But more construction could follow later because the developer, Miami Wilds LLC, has the option to develop a larger resort on what is now the Southern Anchor housing development at the nearby intersection of Coral Reef Drive and SW 123th Avenue.
Some environmentalists oppose the Miami Wilds project because it might endanger land that's supposed to be protected, in exchange for a financial benefit that's hard to predict.
"I have serious questions about its economic viability and very serious questions about its negative environmental impact on a globally imperiled habitat," says Al Sunshine, president of the environmental group Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition.
If the project is approved, it would be only the latest blow for local environmentalists and the Richmond Pine Rocklands, after developers paved over a large area of the forest last year for a project called Coral Reef Commons, a mixed-use development that includes a new Walmart store.
Moss says the Miami Wilds project will only occupy the paved parking lot of Zoo Miami and therefore doesn't constitute an environmental impact. But Sunshine says that because the lot is adjacent to the pine rocklands, it serves as a flight path for the bonneted bat and a rest stop for the tiger beetle. Environmentalists also worry that building a water park would worsen traffic congestion in the area.
For Moss, however, the prospect of more jobs in South Dade could outweigh those concerns.
"You're always gonna have folks in the environmental community who are not in agreement. What I have to do is weigh their concerns and the concerns of those in the community who want the jobs," Moss says.
Moss tells New Times the project will draw on $13.5 million from the Building Better Communities Bond Program to develop the overflow parking area and pay for other associated costs of the entertainment area. The program was initiated in 2004 as a way for the county to raise money for construction projects meant to improve the community.
Ken Warren, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), says the agency has heard about the project but has not yet been consulted on the latest version of the water park. If the Miami Wilds Park does not use federal money, Warren says, the county does not have an obligation to work with the FWS, which enforces the Endangered Species Act.
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Now that the item has been removed from this week's agenda, county commissioners won't hear anything about Miami Wilds until September 1 at the earliest, following their August recess. Moss says he intends to ask again in September to waive the proposal through committee and have the commission vote on it.
"Everybody who wants to weigh in on it will do so at the meeting," Moss says.
Sunshine believes Moss' push to expedite the approval of the project was an attempt to slip the proposal past the public in the middle of the pandemic.
"I am very concerned about the entire way it was being rushed in without public comment," he says. "They're trying to bypass the process of full and open public input."