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Miami Wilds aim for a water park faces county showdown

Written by on November 21, 2023


Miami Wilds aim for a water park faces county showdown

A mid-December showdown looms. Environmentalists are fighting for what they claim are endangered plants and animals threatened by a water park that developers seek to build next to Zoo Miami. Both sides are armed to the teeth with studies, reports and lots of opinion.

Called Miami Wilds, the name brings smiles to those thinking of a water park surrounded by restaurants and shops where children and adults can find respite from the heat that defines South Florida, and frowns from those worried about the survival of a plethora of bats, beetles, butterflies and bushes.

The project has been in the works for decades, at least in meetings, talks, and opposing opinions. Thus far, however, not one shovelful of earth has been dug to make Miami Wilds more than a twinkle in its developers’ eyes.

Simmering for years, the issue may come to a full boil at the Dec. 12 county commission meeting where a report from Mayor Daniella Levine Cava says, essentially: “Let’s forget the whole thing.”

The county should rescind the lease, Mayor Levine Cava said in her report to the commission, because “Miami Wilds has failed to fulfill multiple contractual obligations, including neglecting to provide the county with a requisite land survey … delinquent remittance of rent payments … and untimely submission of the draft final site plan.

“Another key concern is that Miami Wilds is required to commence construction of the waterpark and hotel by the end of 2023.”

“We’ve paid them over $200,000,” one of the development team, Paul Lambert, told Miami Today, “but they’re looking for something to try to, you know, catch us on.”

“We believe we’re in full compliance with the lease,” Mr. Lambert said. Political pressure from environmental groups has given the mayor and the commission pause for thought, he added.

“We’re thrilled to support Mayor Levine Cava’s recommendation to rescind the lease for Miami Wilds,” said Mike Daulton, executive director at Bat Conservation International.

“We trust the county commissioners will echo this sentiment by voting the project down and protecting the critically endangered Florida bonneted bat and Miami’s natural assets,” he said.

“We’re so grateful to Mayor Levine Cava for standing up for the environment with her recommendation to the county commission to rescind the lease,” said Tropical Audubon Society senior conservation director Lauren Jonaitis.

“We fervently hope the commissioners follow the mayor’s lead. It will be great to begin working together again to permanently protect these environmentally sensitive lands.”

The mayor’s memo also recommended withdrawal of the commission agenda item regarding the project that was introduced by Commissioner Kionne McGhee. Miami Today could not reach him about whether he would withdraw the item.

The 27.5-acre Miami Wilds is planned for what is now paved parking at Zoo Miami.

The timeline previously aimed for opening prior to June 2024, but delays in a release of deed restrictions from the National Park Service and signing of a lease with the county changed the schedule.

“We’re working closely with bat experts,” Elise Bennett, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity Organization, told Miami Today earlier this year. They “have documented that the proposed area for development is the most important site for the Florida bonneted bat in Miami-Dade County.”

Two dozen environmental organizations urged the US Fish and Wildlife Service to provide more habitat protections for the bats, according to a joint statement from three of the groups. “The endangered native bats face devastating habitat loss from climate change and urban sprawl,” says a statement issued last week by the Audubon Society, the Center for Biological Diversity and Bat Conservation International.

Mr. Lambert disagrees that the water park would infringe on the bats’ foraging area. The foraging is “not unique to that that property,” he told Miami Today this week, “but the opponents of the project say this is bat Nirvana.”

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