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Save Calusa Lawsuit: Kendall Residents Take Miami-Dade County to Court

It’s a knock-down-drag-out fight, one that has caused even Miami-Dade County’s most beloved employee to berate his own employers and elected officials.

The county’s decision to rezone the land occupied by the shuttered Calusa Country Club golf course in West Kendall and turn it into high-density development has residents fighting fang and talon to protect the bonneted bats, tricolored herons, and other wildlife that reside there — all the way to court.

Despite intense opposition from residents, including beloved Zoo Miami spokesperson (and Kendall resident) Ron Magill, Miami-Dade County commissioners voted 10-2 in November to approve a plan to build 550 homes on the 168-acre golf course land. After county mayor Daniella Levine Cava declined to veto the vote despite the urging of the community and a widely circulated petition, Calusa neighbors are attempting to pull one more rabbit out of their figurative hat.

Last week, the nonprofit Save Calusa Inc. and resident/organizer Amanda Prieto sued Miami-Dade County in county circuit court, asking a judge to pause the issuance of any tree removal or building permits on the golf course and to overturn the county’s rezoning of the property. Save Calusa’s lawsuit is the latest effort in a decade-long fight to keep the Calusa community as it was originally envisioned and to fight back against a government that detractors say is bending to the will of developers.

The group has launched an online fundraising page to cover its legal expenses.

“We will pursue every legal avenue possible because it’s something we strongly believe in. We know what the impacts of building here will be, and we feel that the commissioners are not representing residents’ quality of life and best interests,” Prieto tells New Times.

In a December 27 petition, Save Calusa attorney David Winker alleges that the rezoning violates Miami-Dade County codes and should be overturned because the county failed to give proper notice of a rescheduled hearing and ignored the presence of endangered species on the property.

“At multiple junctures, members of the community were not given their due opportunity to raise legitimate questions, present evidence and have their concerns be properly considered regarding a project that stands to transform a neighborhood forever,” the petition states.

“Much to the chagrin of residents, the mandated policies and procedures to protect the character of neighborhoods and provide community members a way to meaningfully engage in the planning process are often flouted by the very government officials they rely on to represent their interests. The benefit, in this dynamic, inures to those with greater access to city employees and elected officials wealth, often through lobbyists and political contributions.”

click to enlarge The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) recently included Calusa in its map of colonies of threatened wading birds. - PHOTO VIA FLORIDA FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) recently included Calusa in its map of colonies of threatened wading birds.

Photo via Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

The Wildlife

Residents have long claimed that the overgrown golf course is home to numerous endangered and threatened species, including the Florida bonneted bat and the tricolored heron. Last year, Save Calusa Inc. enlisted bat experts who claimed to have found evidence of bonneted bats flying over the golf course. In September, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) included Calusa in its map of threatened wading bird colonies.

Developer GL Homes contends that it has surveyed the property for endangered and threatened species and has not found definitive evidence of any rookeries or nesting trees of bonneted bats.

“Environmental consultants have performed multiple surveys of all trees on the former golf course to determine if bonneted bats roost on the property. Representatives of County DERM accompanied the consultants on the most recent survey. No survey has shown any evidence of bats roosting,” Dick Norwalk, senior vice president of GL homes, tells New Times via email.

Though Cava declined to veto the rezoning, she inserted additional safeguards, directing the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) to enforce “critical environmental protection measures” and minimize impacts on local wildlife.

In an emailed statement via a spokesperson, DERM stated that it had never documented any endangered or threatened species nests on the property, but based on the FWC’s findings had directed the developer in a November memo to perform an environmental survey before securing any permits to remove trees within 330 feet of the “documented rookery.”

Prieto insists the county and the developer haven’t found evidence of nests so far because no one has checked during the birds’ breeding season (which according to FWC lasts from February to August.)

Norwalk says his consultants and DERM will search for nests during the appropriate season, but he suspects they’re only located on a small portion of the property.

“There may be one or more tricolored herons that nest on a small island representing 0.147 acres of the 168-acre property. DERM experts and environmental consultants will, consistent with the conditions of our Zoning approval, inspect the island throughout the next nesting season to understand if steps need to be taken to protect any species present in the habitat,” Norwalk stated.

If nests belonging to tricolored herons, bonneted bats, or any other protected species are found on the property, it would constitute a significant blow to the developer’s project as state and county law prohibits their destruction.

According to Miami-Dade County’s environmental objectives as part of the Comprehensive Development Master Plan, “Rookeries and nesting sites used by federal or State designated endangered or threatened species shall not be moved or destroyed.”

GL Homes was cited last month for removing an environmentally protected tree without a permit and fined $510.

Adequate Notice?

County commissioners were originally scheduled to hold a hearing on the Calusa rezoning on October 20, 2021, but the meeting was postponed to November 17 after too many commissioners said they’d be absent.

Although the October 20 date was properly announced with an ad in the Miami Herald, Save Calusa’s lawsuit hinges on an alleged lack of notice to the public by not advertising the rescheduled November 17 date, at which commissioners voted to rezone the golf course for residential development.

In his petition to the court, Winker argues that by not advertising the new meeting in the Herald, the county violated Florida open government law and its own code of ordinances, which requires the government to publish a newspaper ad at least 14 days prior to a scheduled public meeting.

In an email to Winker in response to his concern about lack of notice, a county employee stated the county is not required to issue another notice of the rescheduled meeting. Instead, the county sent a courtesy email to residents near the proposed development informing them of the rescheduled date and published a calendar event on the county website for the November 17 meeting. (The initial calendar posting stated the wrong developer’s name; rather than posting Kendall Associates I LLC, an affiliate of developer GL Homes, the event page listed Northeastern Golf LLC, an old zoning applicant.)

“Part of their defense is that a lot of people showed up to the meeting, but a lot of environmentalists didn’t know about it that would’ve shown up if it had been re-noticed. There were people who contacted us afterward who didn’t know about it,” Winker tells New Times.

If the court sides with Save Calusa, it will delay the development until a full environmental analysis is completed. It could go as far as to overturn the November 17 zoning vote.

This would be a win for the residents who wanted the county and developers to adhere to the 99-year covenant that called for the land to remain undeveloped until 2067. The county scrapped the covenant after landowner Facundo Bacardí of Bacardí Rum paid homeowners whose properties bordered the golf course hundreds of thousands of dollars to nullify it.

“We shouldn’t have to fight this hard. Residents shouldn’t have to do this,” Winker says. “This idea that all those people got paid $300,000 to divide and conquer, that they let the developer pay off the surrounding neighbors and when others showed up the county won’t let them speak up — it’s disrespectful.”

Prieto wants to ensure that county and state agencies like FWC are doing everything they can to look for and protect wildlife. If the lawsuit can stall long enough for the herons to nest, she says she’ll have done her job.

“This also buys a little time for the wildlife. Our concern was that they didn’t have complete and accurate studies,” Prieto says. “We’ve already seen bulldozers on the property taking down the brush. We saw a dead fox this week, and neighbors have seen fox families being born on the property for decades.”

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