Environmentalists sue UM over pine rocklands: ‘We want to kill the project’

The pine rocklands are home to sensitive species, including butterflies and their host plants like those pictured here in Larry and Penny Thompson Park, one of the few remaining pine rockland preserves. Photo credit: Annie Cappetta

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The University of Miami is back in court over the pine rocklands deal.

The university is under fire again for a 2013 transaction – selling 88 acres of its nearly 138 acres of in-tact pine rocklands ecosystem land to developer Ram Realty Services for $22 million. The developer wanted to transform the area into “Coral Reef Commons,” a complex that would include a shopping center with a Walmart and an L.A. Fitness.

Al Sunshine, former WFOR investigative journalist and founding member of the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition, has sued Miami-Dade County, the University of Miami, Coral Reef Retail and Coral Reef Res PH 1 for failing to give “proper” notice to the public, its neighbors and residents of Miami-Dade County of the rezoning of the 137.89 acres of the Richmond Pine Rocklands.

Sunshine, alongside rocklands neighbors Cully Waggoner, Maria Belen Valladares and Ross Hancock, filed the suit in October 2017. Sunshine said the suit is a “challenge” to the way UM and developer Peter Cummings rezoned the land without giving notice of its special legal status as home to “endangered and rare species.”

“They went from a small academic village to a big major shopping center without neighbors being given adequate notice of all the changes,” Sunshine said.

A UM spokesperson released the following statement to The Miami Hurricane:

“After multiple community hearings and extensive consultation with Miami-Dade County officials, the University of Miami, along with Ram Realty, complied with all the statutory notice provisions and obtained the necessary permits from Miami-Dade County. The University of Miami is and will remain respectful of the judicial process and will continue to support the position asserted in the litigation that the required notices were both timely and adequate in their description.”

However, Sunshine alleges this is simply not true and UM administration knew about the sensitivity of the ecosystem.

According to an article from The Miami Hurricane in November 2006, UM applied to rezone the land and planned to build a residential and educational community, called the South Campus Village. In 2006, the university was crafting a plan to build the community while preserving and maintaining the forest with the help of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens and Miami-Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management.

“We wanted to demonstrate that you could protect the environment and build a town,” former UM President Donna Shalala told the student senate in October 2006.

According to the lawsuit, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had published a notice in the Federal Register proposing pine rocklands should be declared “critical habitat for identified threatened and endangered species of fauna and flora.”

The Richmond Pine Rocklands is home to the endangered Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly and the Florida bonneted bat.

For these reasons, 2017 graduate Zac Cosner said the university “failed” to properly manage and utilize the land.

“If we had used this land responsibly and we established some sort of research institution and used it on any of these endangered species and communities of this type, it would have been a major move from the university,” said Cosner, who triple majored in biology, ecosystem science and policy and history.

Cosner, secretary of the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition, said students should care that “their institution” is responsible for the “obscene destruction” of the land.

Sunshine, a UM alumnus, lives across the street from the land and said the purpose of the lawsuit is simple: to stop the development in its tracks.

“We want to kill the project,” Sunshine said. “Period. End of story. We don’t think it’s appropriate to put hundreds of apartment units, a Walmart, a shopping center and new roads in the middle of an imperiled habitat.”