Pine rocklands ecosystem.
Pine rocklands ecosystem.
Courtesy of Al Sunshine

Judge Allows Walmart Developer to Pave Endangered Pine Rocklands in South Dade

Last December, a platoon of bulldozers descended upon one of the last stretches of endangered pine rockland in America and flattened the area to build apartments, a Chili's, an LA Fitness, and a Walmart on the critically threatened area. The tractors would have done even more damage had a group of South Florida environmentalists not filed an emergency lawsuit and obtained a restraining order to halt construction.

But while the lawsuit itself remains open, a South Florida judge yesterday lifted that restraining order, which means the land developer can immediately begin plowing over the land again.

The environmentalists fighting to save a wholly unique stretch of natural land from a Walmart developer are upset — and also confused that a federal judge would let the builder, Ram Realty Services, begin construction on the land while the environmental suit remains open.

"South Florida is starting to look like a well-gnawed chicken bone," Matthew Schwartz, the perpetually active head of the South Florida Wildlands Association, tells New Times. "There's barely anything that’s left. If you look at a map, they're taking what’s little that's left and building up on it. We’re ground down to the nub now, and the nub isn’t even that big."

The environmental groups — including the Wildlands Association, the Tropical Audubon Society, and the Miami Pine Rockland Coalition — had claimed in their suit that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had incorrectly allowed Ram Realty to build on the land. The federal government had let Ram Realty devise its own method to determine how much environmental damage the development would cause. In their suit, which remains open, the activists argue that the method had not been peer-reviewed, among other concerns.

But in a complex ruling yesterday, U.S. Judge Ursula Ungaro threw out the temporary restraining order because, in her words, the environmentalists didn't put forth enough science and hard evidence to show this was the case.

Ram Realty, led by Palm Beach County resident Peter Cummings, unveiled its plan for the area in 2014: The University of Miami had previously owned the land for decades, but environmentalists say the school sold the land for cheap after failing to maintain the globally endangered area for years. Under the direction of former UM President Donna Shalala (who is now running for U.S. Congress), the university offloaded the land for $22 million — which seems like a steal in light of the current price of land in South Florida.

As a member of the Pine Rockland Coalition, former TV reporter-turned-environmental warrior Al Sunshine has helped drum up support for the team of activists. Yesterday he sullenly announced to his hundreds of followers online that the restraining order had been lifted.

"Developers argued against the TRO and said they were losing $48,000 a day by not being allowed to proceed with their project," Sunshine wrote last night. "The Magistrate's report to U.S. Judge Ursula Ungaro was considered over the past few weeks, and Judge Ungaro took action earlier today. In simple language, there are no longer any Federal Roadblocks to continued Tree Removal and demolition on the project's site and the Developer is free to start work there again."

A rendering of Coral Reef Commons
A rendering of Coral Reef Commons
via Ram Realty

Schwartz, of the Wildlands Association, says the land could have easily been restored to its former, world-unique status with some basic pruning and trimming, as well as periodic "prescribed burns" which environmentalists say are essential to the habitat and UM failed to do when it oversaw the property. The land sits next to Zoo Miami. He says the zoo could have used the rockland to teach children about the South Florida habitat, which doesn't exist anywhere else on the planet.

"That land is irreplaceable," Schwartz says. "Now it’s going to be a Walmart."

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