Mayor requests funds to buy back pine rocklands

The University of Miami sold 88 acres of its south campus to a real estate developer, containing the pine rockland habitat, a rare Florida ecosystem. Maggie Urban-Waala // Contributing Photographer

Mayor of Miami-Dade county Carlos Giménez and Commissioner Dennis Moss asked Gov. Rick Scott for Amendment 1 funding to buy back property containing an endangered pine rockland habitat from RAM Realty Services (RAM). This move would put the land under county control.

Amendment 1 is the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, passed in the gubernatorial election last November. It sets aside 33 percent of excise tax revenue to go toward the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which is used in the acquisition and preservation of land for environmental purposes.

Michael Hernández, director of communications for Miami-Dade county, spoke on behalf of Giménez.

“Given that a large majority of Florida voters just this past November supported Amendment 1, if there are dollars available to buy back the property and have it under county control to preserve the critical habitat areas or areas in which endangered species are thought to be, then we will do that,” he said.

UM sold 88 acres of the land to RAM in 2012 for about $22 million. RAM has plans to develop the land to include restaurants, 900 apartments and a 158,000-square-foot Walmart.

Since this transaction, many concerned citizens have expressed their opposition. One group called the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition launched a campaign toward the preservation of the habitat.

The coalition organizes protests and reaches out to political representatives through letter-writing campaigns and public meetings.

UM alumnus Al Sunshine is a founder of the coalition. He said he felt encouraged to have the coalition’s voice heard after being in contact with Giménez and Moss for almost a year.

“We are very grateful and encouraged that the mayor and the commissioner understand what so many local residents are demanding,” Sunshine said. “We support their efforts to try to get it protected and saved, which is what we’ve been fighting for for the past year.”

However, Hernández said that Giménez’s actions were not a direct act of support of the protestors who contacted him.

“The mayor has always said he’s pro-economic development but also pro-environment,” Hernández said. “So the mayor didn’t side necessarily with protesters; it’s part of what he has consistently done as an elected or appointed official.”

The pine rockland property is being handled among Miami-Dade county, the state of Florida and the federal government through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Before making any decisions about development to the land, Hernández said that Giménez first plans to wait for an appraisal of the land from the federal government.

“This is a private transaction between the university and a developer,” Hernandez said. “So the mayor has said, ‘Let’s hit pause and let the federal government come in and conduct whatever process they need to conduct. Let’s wait for the results of what they are doing.’ They have the most amount of authority on environmental matters.”

Some coalition members expressed skepticism about the actions taken by Gimenez and Moss.

Steve Leidner, a coalition co-director, predicts that acquiring Amendment 1 funding may be unlikely.

“It may be more of a show than actual substance,” Leidner said. “They’re making a move to protect the habitat if Amendment 1 funds can be procured when the probability is that they can’t be procured. It may be smart politically or strategically.”

Sunshine spoke with lawmakers representing the rockland area and said that they did not have knowledge about the progress made by Gimenez and Moss.

“They tell me they are not aware that any state people have been talked to regarding this request or efforts to get this pine rockland listed as an area for possible Amendment 1 funding,” he said. “We are curious whether this is a formal agenda for Dade county’s lobbyists in Tallahassee.”

The coalition has also not received word back from representatives regarding the issue, contributing to the concern of members like Sunshine.

“We are concerned that we have not gotten any follow-up response from the governor’s office, the mayor or Commissioner Moss on what the response was from the governor on their request,” Sunshine said.

“I don’t want to discount mayor Gimenez’s actions, but I don’t really know yet if they’re going to accomplish what needs to be accomplished,” Leidner said.

Moss could not be reached for comment.