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There’s a water park planned for Zoo Miami. Environmentalists say it’s a disaster

A planned water park next to Zoo Miami could be blocked this week if Miami-Dade commissioners agree with environmental groups that the project threatens endangered wildlife that live in the forest around the county-owned attraction.

Developers pitch the $47 million Miami Wilds project as a fun addition to the zoo, with seven water slides, a lazy river and a wave pool, plus restaurants and shops on land that’s currently covered by mostly paved lots providing free parking for the zoo.

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

Environmental groups oppose the project and its $13.5 million county subsidy for bringing more development to the edge of the pine rocklands forest that surrounds the zoo, and contend the parking lots themselves are key parts of the ecosystem for the endangered Florida bonneted bats that feed after sunset.

“The way it is now — park during the day, leave at night — it’s perfect for all of these species” living in the forest, said Lauren Jonaitis, senior conservation director for the Tropical Audubon Society, which is leading the fight against the project. “But if you plop a water park in the middle of it, the species can’t use it.”

She said that while the water park would rise on land mostly used for zoo parking, there are still scattered clusters of sensitive vegetation on the potential development site outside of the lots.. “There are some pine rocklands in there,” she said. “And the Miami tiger beetle has been found in there.”

Surrounding area is ‘critical habitat’

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May declared the area around Zoo Miami as “critical habitat” for the endangered Miami Tiger beetle, part of a nearly 2,000-acre zone that brings with it more regulatory requirements but doesn’t bar development.

In court papers, county lawyers reject the environmental objections to Miami Wilds as a misguided attempt to treat as sensitive a large area that’s already been developed, including the entire zoo campus, a nearby University of Miami facility and the Gold Coast Rail Museum.

“Plaintiffs bizarrely claim that all of Zoo Miami and its surrounding lands — including its existing parking lot — are environmentally sensitive land that is unsuitable for development,” assistant county attorney Monica Rizo wrote in a Dec. 8 filing in a lawsuit filed by Bat Conservation International trying to block the project.

The controversy has sparked a showdown between the administration of county Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, which negotiated the revised deal, and the environmental advocates that the Democratic mayor is courting for her 2024 reelection campaign. It also has the county deal taking fire from a county employee who has long served as the zoo’s global ambassador: communications director Ron Magill.

“ I can no longer just sit back and watch developer dollars dictate the future of Miami-Dade County, especially in my own backyard,” Magill wrote in a letter he said he sent to Miami-Dade commissioners as a private citizen and not a county employee. “I must ask, how can the zoo profess to have conservation as a main pillar, yet allow for this project to continue on its own property? It is the definition of hypocrisy!”

A decades-long fight over development

The fight stretches back decades, with the project at one point promising a theme park by 20th Century Fox as a way to make the spot a major tourist attraction. Instead, developers now say they expect about 65% of Miami Wilds’ yearly 500,000 visitors to be South Florida residents.

“We’re expecting to drive more traffic to the zoo,” said Paul Lambert, one of the developers, along with Miami architect Bernard Zyscovich and lawyer Michael Diaz Jr.

He said the project will bring South Florida one of its only large-scale water parks, with an expected spike in attendance when local schools are closed for the summer. “The closest competition is the Rapids Waterpark in Palm Beach County. That’s 90 miles away. Either that, or fly to Bahamas.”

Miami-Dade voters in 2006 endorsed a for-profit entertainment center outside the zoo, which is a county park, provided none of the construction occurs on environmentally sensitive land. Commissioners approved the project in 2020.

As developers battle environmental groups in court, they’ve missed milestones required under the original 40-year lease and need extensions from Miami-Dade. Commissioners are scheduled to vote on those extensions Wednesday. Levine Cava recommended accepting the new deal. The revised agreement includes a big change in the plan: a 200-room hotel near the zoo’s entrance is no longer a developer requirement, with the planned location moving to county owned land nearby where there used to be U.S. Coast Guard barracks. Miami Wilds also plans to build an affordable-housing complex there.

More than hotel location would change

The hotel switch touches on another source of friction for opponents of the project. Commissioners in 2020 approved a $13.5 million economic-development grant for the project, to be paid out of bond funds borrowed against property taxes. With the hotel no longer a mandated part of the project under the deal, the minimum development budget required by the county drops from $99 million to $47 million and the hiring requirements from 304 jobs to 225.

Lambert noted the grant agreement, with its original hiring requirements, remains in place and commissioners would have to alter it to allow for different hiring targets. He said Miami Wilds won’t lower the job pledges because the relocated hotel will end up with a larger staff.

He also said the $13.5 million pays for a new parking facility Miami Wilds would run and share with Zoo Miami, with rates starting at $9 a day.

That’s a switch from the free parking available now but also a source of revenue for a zoo that’s budgeted to cost the county about $20 million this year. In 2020, the county estimated Miami Wilds would pay the county about $3 million a year in rent and revenue sharing. The latest Levine Cava memo did not have updated figures for the revised deal.

With changes in the development plan and reworking minimum construction and hiring figures, opponents want Miami-Dade to put the project on hold for a revised economic-impact study.

“They need to evaluate all of this to make an informed decision,” Jonaitis said.