An illustration of Miami Wilds from the proposed park's Facebook page. (Photo: Facebook)
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Miami-Dade commissioners decided not to give developers more time to comply with their lease for the Miami Wilds waterpark and hotel project — one more nail in the coffin of a controversial deal.

The decision Tuesday came a day after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a letter declaring the development site — a parking lot near Zoo Miami’s pine rocklands — as environmentally sensitive.

The plan to develop the water theme park and hotel first won county approval in 2020. But a crucial vote in September was delayed because of federal litigation launched by conservation groups after federal officials admitted to not completing environmental studies needed to lift restrictions on the land.

On Monday the federal judge on that case ruledthat the National Park Service had indeed violated two federal laws when releasing the land to Miami-Dade County for the development of Miami Wilds.

Following the release of the letter and the judge’s ruling, Commissioner Kionne McGhee on Monday moved to withdraw a resolution to amendthe development lease, which would have paved the way for developers to have more time to meet lease deadlines.

The commission voted to formally withdraw that modification from consideration. So while the lease still stands, it requires construction to begin by the end of the year and developers will not get the extra time they had requested to secure documentation to work with that timeline.

On Tuesday, the commission voted to formally withdraw that modification from consideration. So while the lease still stands, it requires construction to begin by the end of the year and developers will not get the extra time they had requested to secure documentation to work with that timeline.

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Commissioner Raquel Regalado also announced she intends to introduce a resolution in January to rescind the lease altogether.

“While very disappointed by today’s lack of action, Miami Wilds will continue to operate and defend the project under the existing lease and act as any prudent business would,” a Miami Wild’s spokesperson said following the decision.

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups behind the lawsuit over the National Park Service’s handling of the site, welcomed the commission’s vote.

“It’s good to know that even absent a final determination from the commission that the administration is ready to move forward and unwind this ill-advised project,” said Florida director and Senior Attorney Elise Bennett.

Zoo Miami spokesman Ron Magill, who had stunned the community when he became an outspoken critic of the waterpark plans and his employers, had urged commissioners to prioritize the environment over development at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I pray that we can all look back on this one day and say we were there when a true culture of environmental protection began in Miami-Dade County,” he said.

Regalado said she intends to go through with proposing to rescind the lease — despite the possibility of litigation.

In November, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava had informed developers that the county intended to rescind lease agreements if deed restrictions were placed back on the land. Monday’s federal ruling effectively put back in place those deed restrictions that were blocking the land from being used for anything other than a public park and recreational space.

“Of course there’s going to be litigation on this,” Regalado said. “And I sign up for that litigation. I hope that we make a final decision in January and, like my colleague said, we finally kill this and put it to bed and protect our pine rocklands.”

Miami-Dade Commissioner Raquel Regaldo during a taping of the Anti-Social podcast in October 2023. (KBI Photo: John Pacenti)

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Seitz wrote in her ruling Monday that the National Park Service violated the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act by not going through with an environmental review before releasing the land to Miami-Dade County.

According to the ruling, federal standards dictate that the National Park Service should have consulted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and completed a biological assessment before determining that 67 acres of land adjacent to Zoo Miami were available for release from its land-use restrictions.

The lawsuit — originally filed in February and brought by conservation groups Center for Biological Diversity, Bat Conservation International, Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association and Tropical Audubon Society — argues that the development would jeopardize already endangered species that rely on the disappearing pine rockland ecosystem. These species include the Miami tiger beetle, the Florida leafwing butterfly, the rim rock crowned snake and the Florida bonneted bat, among others.

“Once the court found that those legal violations had occurred, [the judge] essentially undid that release of land-use restrictions,” Elise Bennett said. “Those restrictions went back onto the land.”

Ron Magill holds a pink flamingo at Metro Zoo
Zoo spokesman Ron Magill holds a flaming during a roundup of Caribbean Flamingos at Zoo Miami in Miami, Thursday, April 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

On Monday, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service released a letter supporting what conservation groups and environmentalists argue about the ecological importance of the parcels of land slated for the development.

Lawrence Williams, supervisor for the federal agency’s Florida field office, wrote that the parcels should “maintain their ecological functions” because of the area’s “importance to rare species.”

The letter goes on to say that the parcels of land considered for Miami Wilds include pine rockland habitat.

Over 98% of pine rocklands has been lost and the “globally rare” ecosystem has one of the highest concentrations of federally listed species in the country, with at least 12 federally endangered and threatened species relying on these parcels specifically.

The federally endangered bonneted bat is an exceedingly rare species, now only found across a few South Florida counties, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The letter and lawsuit ruling placed more irons in the fire to squash the already crumbling plan before Tuesday’scommission meeting. But, ultimately, critics and supporters of the deal won’t have more answers until January.

Julia Cooper

Julia Cooper is an intern at WLRN. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Julia Cooper is an intern at WLRN. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.