Inside the Coral Reef Commons development site, set to house a Walmart, a Chick-fil-A, a Chili’s, and 900 apartments. Sarah Goodyear

A Walmart and a Chick-fil-A could replace some of the last remaining pine rocklands in the world. 

As you move west along Miami’s Coral Reef Drive in your air-conditioned car, gas stations and strip malls and neat residential developments flashing past your windows on the right-hand side, you probably wouldn’t even notice the land that’s under dispute in this sprawling city. But look off to your left and you’ll see a wall of green: the edge of an 88-acre tract where developers want to build what they’re calling Coral Reef Commons. It would feature a 158,000-square-foot Walmart, a Chick-fil-A, a Chili’s, and 900 apartments.

That plan has hit a snag in the form of officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who say the land encompasses one of the last remnants of a rare type of habitat called pine rocklands. According to the Miami Herald, which has been reporting in depth on the story, 165,000 acres of such forest once flourished between the Miami River and what is now the city of Homestead to the south. Only 2 percent remains. Occurring only in one other place, the Bahamas, pine rocklands provide habitat for a variety of endangered flora and fauna, including the Bartram’s hairstreak butterfly and the Florida bonneted bat. Outside of the Everglades, just 2,900 acres remain scattered across the booming region.

The land in dispute off of Coral Reef Drive, once part of the adjacent Richmond Naval Air Station, was part of a 140-acre parcel obtained by the University of Miami from the federal government for free in the 1980s and 1990s. Though local environmental groups such as Tropical Audubon had long called for its preservation, the university sold it to Ram Developers, which has built residential and retail projects all over the state, for $22 million this year.

Work had already begun on the site when federal officials stepped in last week. Researchers had discovered previously unknown clusters of rare plants that support endangered butterflies. The feds informed Ram that it might be in violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act if it continued with construction, and sent a letter saying that the company needed to conduct a review of protected species and obtain a federal permit before continuing with the project.

According to the Herald, the developers have said that they already planned a 40-acre preserve as part of the complex, in compliance with a county requirement. They are currently reviewing the letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Many in Florida’s environmental community have been especially upset with the University of Miami’s role in the development plans, saying that the institution—which offers programs focused on environmental policy and practice—was failing in its duty to care for the natural resources under its own control.

Attorney Dennis Olle is a board member of Tropical Audubon and the North American Butterfly Association. “You wonder how things end up being endangered?” Olle told Jenny Staletovich of the Miami Herald. “This is how. This is bad policy and bad enforcement. And shame on UM.”

University officials have responded to critics in a statement. “We went through a transparent, public process with DERM and the County including public meetings,” the statement said. “The University acted in good faith and in compliance with all rules and regulations in its handling of the South Campus property.”

Around the corner from the development site, which is fenced off to the public, is the Larry and Penny Thompson Memorial Park, a 270-acre county facility with RV and tent camping, a freshwater lake with water slides, and walking paths. It isn’t wilderness by any stretch of the imagination, but you can find a remarkable peace within 50 yards of the roaring arterial roads that surround the park.

I asked a woman who was out for a hike on the paths if she knew about the development plans for the nearby site. She said she hadn’t realized what was going on, and that she treasured the little green space that remained in the neighborhood she’s lived in all her life, including the grounds of Zoo Miami, which are also nearby.

“I’m really not a city person,” she said. Then she gestured north toward downtown Miami where, more than 20 miles of continuous low-rise sprawl away, the towers of Brickell Avenue rise. “I’m not about up there, I’m about down this way.”

“Down this way” once was a much wilder place. But Miami has marched relentlessly south, development after development after development. The result has been plenty of lush lawns and landscaped housing tracts, along with acres of parking lots and big-box strips. But the few fragments of natural green space are becoming farther and farther between, and invasive species are overwhelming the scattered pieces of natural forest that remain.

In 1984, Miami-Dade County enacted a requirement to preserve 80 percent of pine rocklands on development sites, but protection is not triggered until building plans are filed. It wasn’t until researchers started walking the Coral Reef Commons tract in June, in accordance with the county’s forest-preservation ordinance, that they realized just how rich the area was in endangered species.

The dispute over the new development may seem quixotic. You could point, as the developers do, to the market demand for the type of rental housing they propose, with big-box shopping handy on the premises. You could say that the economic engine that has created all this development should be allowed to run on without serious impediment. You could look at Miami as an irretrievably changed environment without much worth saving, where a 40-acre preserve could function as a sort of museum piece, a reminder of what was.

Or you could, as many local environmentalists are doing, decide that it’s worth leveraging the laws on the books to save this one particular place, which is different from almost anywhere else on the planet. “There needs to be an overall habitat conservation plan for the pineland rather than having it bought up piece by piece. Because with this piece-by-piece [management], you end up with pieces,” Olle told the Herald. “Maybe the Endangered Species Act will force people to do the planning that should have been done all along.”

For people, as well as for bats and butterflies, wild space has a value that can't be easily measured. In a state with no shortage of places to buy stuff or of brownfield sites where residential units could be built, failing to care for this sliver of pine rocklands off of Coral Reef Drive feels like giving in—surrendering to the idea that we have nothing in common with the Florida bonneted bat or the Bartram's hairstreak butterfly. It's surrendering to the idea that we are completely domesticated creatures.

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