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Miami Wilds water park lease gets green light from Miami-Dade county commissioners

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 10/21/2020 By Adriana Brasileiro, The Miami Herald

County commissioners approved a lease agreement for the Miami Wilds water park, a development that’s slated to be built on a portion of Zoo Miami’s parking lot.

Environmentalists had mounted a campaign against the project, saying the area was key to the survival of the endangered Florida bonneted bat. The 27.5 acres of parking lot where the attraction would be built is right next to a patch of rare pine rockland forest that is also home to endangered species such as the Miami tiger beetle and butterflies.

“This bat-killing project will risk permanent extinction of the highly endangered Florida bonneted bat,” said Michael Daulton, executive director of Bat Conservation International, adding he was deeply disappointed commissioners approved the “reckless development” of the area.

The commission’s 7-1 vote on the lease deal was a major hurdle for a project that has gone through years of discussions and plan changes.

Most were to address environmental concerns like the presence of the beetle, an endangered insect that’s so rare it wasn’t seen for decades after its discovery in the 1930s. A small group of the iridescent beetle was spotted at the zoo parking lot in 2007, which fueled calls for more protections for pine rocklands surrounding the area. The beetle was classified as endangered in 2016.

In a PowerPoint presentation, Miami-Dade’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces department’s director Maria Nardi touted the environmental compromises developers are promising to make to accommodate the bats, including adjustments to lighting and increased investment in restoring surrounding environmentally sensitive lands the bats use.

But she also said that at least four attractions at Miami Wilds will be lit at night, which led to questions by Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava on whether the park would operate at night. County staff said there are still no details about the actual operations, and that the site plan itself still has to go through an extensive approval process by county, state and federal agencies. Nardi also said the entrance fee hasn’t been decided, but that it would be in line with other similar attractions in the county.

Activists questioned the county’s promise to protect the endangered animals.

“There is no such thing as bat-friendly lighting,” said Diana Umpierre of Sierra Club. “And the lease agreement really doesn’t provide a lot of details on these environmentally friendly measures that were promised today.”

Commissioner Dennis Moss, a longtime supporter of Miami Wilds, said that developers pledged to cover the cost of a new acoustic survey to determine how the bats use the parking lot and surrounding areas. Moss said concerns about the lighting have been addressed to ensure the conditions at the area are the least detrimental to the bats.

“A number of different changes have been made to find that balance of keeping the environment safe and making sure we take care of the animals, but at the same time we create opportunities for the community,” Moss said.

A recent acoustic monitoring survey by Bat Conservation International showed that the rare bats make constant use of paved-over lot for foraging.

Most commissioners said the forecast for job creation and revenue generation convinced them to OK the project. Commissioner Xavier Suarez was the only no vote, citing concerns with the length of the lease: 40 years, with an expected revenue of $120.7 million. Development of a theme park on Zoo Miami grounds was approved by voters in 2006. Nardi said the water park would employ about 700 people during the construction phase, which is expected to take two years. It’s forecast to create about 400 full-time jobs once it’s up and running.

Levine Cava asked developers to extend the due diligence period for the project to 12 months from nine months to allow for a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services on a potential critical habitat designation for the bonneted bat, which could affect Miami Wilds. She also proposed an amendment requiring that a recent acoustic survey on the bonneted bat be included in the analysis of the project once the actual plans are discussed.

“I’m hopeful that this project can achieve a balance between land preservation and smart economic development for South Dade,” she said.

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