Commissioners delay water park vote as experts defend wildlife (includes video story)

Developers of the Miami Wilds water park continue to wait for a decision on their proposed lease extension after the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners delayed a final vote once more.

The meeting to decide on an extension for developers was originally scheduled for Sept. 6 and then postponed to Tuesday, but Miami Dade County Commissioner Kionne McGhee requested to delay it again until the county and federal governments resolve some court challenges with environmental groups — including one against the National Parks Service from earlier this year. 

The 27.5-acre project would be built on a Zoo Miami parking lot, right next to one of the last remaining parcels of pine rockland, raising red flags among conservationists and locals.

Wildlife conservationist and Zoo Miami spokesman Ron Magill has worked for the county for over 40 years, but on Monday he was speaking only as a private citizen. He said this is not the first time he’s seen this kind of issue.

“Right next door [is] the Walmart, what they call Coral Reef Commons, the LA Fitness, a car wash, [and] the stores that eliminated… the wildlife,” he said. 

Magill said he isn’t convinced that Miami Wilds will be as environmentally sensitive as promised. He claimed developers of a nearby retail plaza development also assured they’d follow guidelines, yet ended up bulldozing 138 acres of the habitat. 

“They had to abide by what is called HCP, a Habitat Conservation Plan…” he said. “Nobody’s holding them accountable. Already, we have lights that are taller than they should be. We have some lights that are shining into the forest.”

While several species are at risk, some conservationists are mainly concerned about the Florida bonneted bat, one of the rarest mammals on earth. 

According to Zoo Miami, this species tends not to forage in areas with tight flyways or several large obstacles. 

Luca Martinez, 18, is a conservation videographer and speaker who’s gone viral on Instagram for his videos about Miami Wilds. One of them explained why the parking lot is critical for the survival of the bats. 

“This parking lot is mimicking a prairie because the Florida bonneted bats that live in that forest right here. They rely on this airspace to feed and socialize at night,” Martinez said in his latest post. 

The development plans initially started with a minimum $99 million investment — including a hotel on the premises. However, it’s no longer permitted and the investment fell to $47 million.

In the message to commissioners he had prepared for Tuesday’s meeting, Magill said the consequences may be irreparable. 

“You can build these attractions, you can build these malls, you can build these apartments, and they eventually can be torn down and you can build them again,” he said. “Once you lose this habitat, this critically endangered habitat, the animals that live in there. Once that’s gone, all the money in the world cannot buy it back.”

Nicole Ardila is a digital broadcasting major at FIU, also pursuing a minor in psychology. She's reported for Caplin News from Washington, D.C. for an NBCU Academy Fellowship and directed the Opinion section for FIU’s student media, PantherNOW. In the future, she hopes to become a photojournalist and producer for documentaries/film to share important stories from across the world.