Pros and cons of the controversial Coral Reef Commons project were aired for nearly three hours on Sept. 11, marked by three unusual occurrences for town meetings sponsored by the Kendall Federation of Homeowner Associations:
• Developer Peter Cummings appeared in person to answer questions and defend his project’s viability as “planned to set a standard for future environmental planning.”
• A panel of six specialists in preservation, officials and organizational representatives provided views ranging from protection of everything from Miami-Dade’s pine rocklands to rare specifies of butterflies.
• Petition leader Leslye Jacobs led protests by a dozen nearby residents, including outspoken former television consumer reporter Al Sunshine, several saying they never received legal notice of the development.
Five zoning approvals have been held to permit 40 acres of the rock pineland tract to be developed, all properly notified to 1,615 residents in adjoining properties, countered attorney Juan Mayol speaking on behalf of Cummings who later took the microphone to describe environmental efforts planned to protect the balance of the remaining preserved areas.
While his views drew the respect, if not agreement from a predominantly opposition audience of more than 200, vocal opposition heightened due to objections to the location of a Walmart store to anchor the proposed shopping center.
Current approval also will permit 900 multi-family housing units on 137 acres of land off SW 152nd Street adjacent to Zoo Miami.
Both Walmart and the housing units are planned on property adjacent to preserve areas part of the original 80 acres that the University of Miami sold to RAM for $21 million, according to Cummings. As originally approved for rezoning in 2012, development can provide for 347,830 square feet of retail space and a residential parcel with up to 1,008 units, a clubhouse, swimming pools and similar amenities with connectivity to the shopping area.
As added advantages, Cummings pointed out the project also dedicates 18,000 square feet for a Miami- Dade County library and a 0.4-acre for potential school use once conveyed to the Miami-Dade School Board. Current planning calls for 900 apartments with 43 acres of the original rockland divided into four preserves, a cause for concern by both residents and environmental spokespersons despite Cummings assurance that RAM intended to create and maintain standards especially designed to protect those areas.
“Of all pine rockland areas, this Richmond preserve had remained as the largest of the 2 percent acreage that still exists in Miami-Dade County,” said Dr. Frank Ridgely, Associate Veterinarian with Zoo Miami, noting that all county preserves act as annual “re-fueling stops” for migratory birds, as well as preservation of rare tropical plants and species.
“I’m here to protect the butterflies,” declared Sandy Koi, a biological scientist with the Tropical Research and Education Center of the University of Florida. “Here is an already-imperiled land housing endangered species. Two are butterfly types that have only recently been discovered living only in this habitat.”
Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Miami-Dade Tropical Audubon Society, urged Cummings to reconsider use of the rockland, saying that her organization had long sought the University of Miami’s cooperation to abandon sale of the tract that would “only provide another development that continues to reduce the last areas for native habitats of endangered species.”
Equally impassioned, homeowner Gerry Vizran described the adverse economic impact of the national chain in other areas, asking that residents continue to voice objections to the location of a new Walmart store.
Sunshine and a representative of the Deerwood Homeowners Coalition Board, representing the community on the north side of S W 152nd Street, were adamant in declaring they had never received legal notice of public hearings that began in 2004 to change the property’s land use and zoning designations.
Matt Schwartz of South Florida Wildlands Association noted that South Florida, with a projected population of 30 million by 2060, would become a “nightmare” if existing land is not protected by local government agencies.
At the close of the session, Jacobs and Reynolds continued gathering signatures of objectors, estimated by them to total nearly 90,000 in three separate petition drives, two by resident groups accumulating over 80,000 signers.
Reynolds’ 10,000-signature goal petition is headed “Save the Endangered Forest Lands Sold to Walmart in South Florida,” listed on the nationwide “Moveon. org” website with a notation for delivery to Florida legislators and Gov. Rick Scott.