More delays for Miami Wilds water park vote as county mayor says other sites on table

The Miami Wilds water park has another two months to secure votes on the Miami-Dade County Commission needed to build next to Zoo Miami, while Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said another site may be in the mix for a project opposed by conservation groups.

“We are considering other sites,” Levine Cava told commissioners ahead of the second vote to defer a final decision on the county lease Miami Wilds needs to build the for-profit attraction outside one of the county’s most visited destinations.

The next vote is scheduled for Dec. 12 on revisions to a lease first approved in 2020 and then bogged down by court challenges and other delays.

The water park planned for a parking area outside Zoo Miami faces another delay on a crucial Miami-Dade vote as conservation groups fight the project over claims it will harm endangered bats living in the adjoining Pine Rocklands forest.

Commissioner Kionne McGhee, sponsor of the new Miami Wilds lease on 28 acres of county-owned parkland around the zoo, asked for the postponement. That vote was originally scheduled for Sept. 6, but McGhee secured a two-week postponement after opponents urged commissioners to vote no and Levine Cava said she wanted to “take a deeper dive” on the controversy.

READ MORE: Miami Wilds water park hits setback as county delays vote after environment warnings

Miami Wilds first won approval in 2020, but litigation has helped complicate the development timetable, leading to the project needing a revised county lease. Since the first vote, 12 of the 13 commission seats have been filled with new members, including District 9’s McGhee.

In an interview McGhee acknowledged there’s been talk of proposing new county locations in the Homestead area for Miami Wilds, which would have multiple water slides, a lazy river ride and shops and restaurants on land conservation groups say provides nighttime feeding grounds for endangered bats living in the adjoining forests.

He described alternative sites as only becoming relevant if a court sides with environmental groups in their challenges of the proposed lease.

“All of those things are subject to what the court has to say,” said McGhee, whose South Dade district includes the zoo and the proposed Miami Wilds site. “If the court rules in favor of the water park, then the conversation is over. They have the right to be there.”

After Tuesday’s vote, McGhee said Miami Wilds, which has promised 304 jobs in exchange for a $13.5 million county subsidy, will be a boost for the southern part of Miami-Dade’s economy.

“The South really needs this water park as an economic engine,” he said.

A judge recently dismissed one suit in state court, ruling the groups didn’t have legal standing to sue over the project.

Conservation groups, including Bat Conservation International, have had more success in a federal suit, with the National Park Service conceding it didn’t follow proper procedure in lifting development restrictions on the former federal land where Miami Wilds wants to build a water park, shops and restaurants outside Zoo Miami’s entrance.

The federal litigation could clear the way for the National Park Service to begin the process of the regulatory review plaintiff lawyers say is vital to determining whether the zoo parking area is appropriate for a new for-profit attraction leasing land from Miami-Dade.

Elise Bennett, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead plaintiff, said the National Park Service maintains it needs commission approval to withdraw the original release on the Miami Wilds site. That permission would have been granted in the vote to approve the new lease.

READ MORE: Environmental groups file suit to try and block Miami Wilds project at Zoo Miami

Without commission approval, she said plaintiff lawyers plan to ask a judge to decide how the National Park Service can fix what the agency concedes was a flawed review process.

“The National Park Service has admitted most of the legal violations,” she said, “so the main matter for the Court to decide is how to remedy the violations.”

The revised deal needing commission approval would give Miami Wilds two years to secure a new green light from the National Park Service for the project or build the water park on zoo land not needing agency approval.

Bat Conservation, the Tropical Audubon Society and others say the project will doom the endangered Florida bonneted bat, which feeds in the air above the parking grounds left idle and dark at night outside the zoo. County lawyers have rejected the argument in court papers, saying the land is free to be developed after voters endorsed an entertainment center there in a 2006 referendum.

The ballot item said the project could only go forward on that land outside the zoo that isn’t environmentally sensitive.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner Raquel Regalado said she was ready to vote against Miami Wilds. “Let’s vote it down,” she said. “And be done with it.”