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Now Is Your Chance to Weigh in on the Walmart Slated for Critical Pine Rockland Habitat

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

The history of Florida is the adjustment to intrusion. In the state's short 172-year history, armed U.S. troops have chased native Seminoles out of the Everglades, pristine beaches once considered worthless land have become vacation hot spots, and cattle pastures have given way to Disney World food courts.

Over the years, pine rockland — a habitat unique to South Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas — has also begun to slowly disappear. In Miami-Dade County, 98 percent of it has already been lost to development.

That history has made it difficult for environmentalists to stomach a plan by a Palm Beach County developer to turn 88 of those remaining acres into a shopping center, anchored by a Walmart, a Chick-fil-A, an LA Fitness, and a Chili's. Yet unless some last-minute intervention comes into play, that's exactly what would happen to some South Miami-Dade property near Zoo Miami.

Three years after halting construction over concerns about eight endangered or at-risk species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week finally unveiled the developer's plan to reduce its footprint. As part of the process, the feds have begun accepting emails and calls from members of the public, many of whom believe the project is a bad idea.

"We continue to have concerns just because this is such a rare habitat," says Jackie Lopez, the Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "It supports a lot of species that don't really exist anywhere else."

Ram Realty bought the plot of land at Coral Reef Drive and SW 127th Avenue from the University of Miami in 2014. Thousands of locals soon signed petitions and held rallies to protest the development. Within a matter of days, FWS forced the company to stop construction after expressing concern about the potential impact to endangered plant and animal species on the property.

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

The new conservation plan released by the developer outlines a compromise of sorts: Ram has proposed reducing the size of its commercial development by 81,000 feet and setting aside 51 acres for a preserve. Over time, due to a restoration of the habitat and improved maintenance, the company says, some of the species could even proliferate.

The sheer fact that much of the property would be bulldozed over, though, remains upsetting to environmentalists.

"The project itself will be in the middle of this property. It's the fact that you are fragmenting the available remaining habitat, which diminishes its value," Lopez says.

Ashleigh Blackford, a wildlife biologist with FWS, says the public comment period is an opportunity for citizens to provide new information about the property and surrounding environment or to correct information in the report they believe is erroneous or misleading.

"We're looking for feedback on new information we didn't consider or feedback on how we considered the information," Blackford says. "Simply a vote for or against the project is not nearly as meaningful."
Emails from groups opposing the project have already begun pouring in. In a letter he sent to FWS, Cully Waggoner, a member of the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition, calls the developer's plan "504 pages of nonsense."

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"To allow any developer to cause the imminent extinction of any species because they want to put up another Walmart is beyond me," Waggoner wrote.

Retired CBS Miami investigative reporter Al Sunshine, an activist who's also a member of the group, says he has concerns that the developer's consultant claims to have seen only one of the eight endangered or at-risk species likely to live on the property.

"There's a serious question as to how [endangered species] are being found throughout the habitat, but Ram's experts have not found them on their property during the time periods that they are normally discoverable," says Sunshine, who has sent a letter to FWS requesting a public hearing on the project.

The activist groups are asking for an extension of the public comment period, but for now Fish and Wildlife will take comments through May 22. Written comments should be addressed to the agency at crc_hcp@fws.gov or through snail mail to Ashleigh Blackford at the South Florida Ecological Services Office, 1339 20th St., Vero Beach, FL 32960.

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