Author’s Note: Please excuse this belated and partially off-topic post; I’ve written these comments because I feel it is important to highlight the conduct of Ram Realty and to present the best available facts concerning the potential development of Coral Reef Commons site.
In May 2015 Ram Realty filed a lengthy Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) for the development of Coral Reef Commons (CRC). In a press release Ram claimed the HCP, prepared by Johnson Engineering Inc., is a “science-based document” despite the fact that this document contains grievous misrepresentations of the facts. Below I’ve responded to Ram’s most egregious claims, chiefly the present state of the site and the impacts of the development.
No Take of Listed Species?
In their project overview Ram expresses their intent to secure a 50-year Incidental Take Permit (ITP) while, at the same time, insisting that the CRC development:
[W]ould not result in a take [death] of listed species, nor … adversely impact listed species. (Ram 1-2)
This “no take” scenario is absolutely impossible; almost half (48%) of the site is globally imperiled pine rocklands and a majority of the property is USFWS designated critical habitat for four endangered species. Despite their protestations to the contrary Ram’s HCP explicitly calls for the destruction of endangered plants and the host plant for two endangered butterflies.
Condition of Coral Reef Commons Pine Rocklands
[The] majority (56%) of pine rocklands within CRC [are severely degraded] (Ram 1)
Ram purposefully inflates the percentage of degraded lands by including three “new” areas of “pine rocklands” in their figures to inflate the amount of degraded lands (Fig 1). Yes, these degraded lands once were rocklands but presently do not meet the criteria used by the independent surveyors and scientists. In reality a minority (~47%) of the CRC pine rocklands are degraded (IRC).
Purpose of Coral Reef Commons
In the HCP Ram rosily states:
… the basic purpose … is to construct an environmentally conscious, economically viable, mixed-use development, with “garden-style” apartments capable of sustaining on-site shopping, recreation, and employment; enabling restoration and the perpetual preservation of 51.54 acres. (Ram 4)
This is a radical shift in language from Ram’s initial press release:
Ram Realty Services closed today on the acquisition of 80 acres of land for the first phase of the [Coral Reef Commons] development, which will include 408 luxury garden apartments and 250,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. Wells Fargo is providing financing for this $120 million initial phase. Future phases will see the development grow to 125 acres [91% of the property developed].
Not surprisingly this post has been removed from Ram’s website. These conflicting statements on the purpose of CRC development again illustrate Ram’s willingness to skew the nature, scope, and facts of the impending development.
What Will Be Developed?
The majority of development, 53.35 acres of the 86.35 acres (~60%), will consist of the redevelopment of previously developed areas and disturbed uplands.
This is ridiculous; only 12% of the CRC site is significantly developed (Fig 2), according to Ram’s own figures: 12.8 acres of impervious surfaces + 4 acres of animal cage structures (Ram 28). The remaining areas, “disturbed uplands,” are green spaces modified to various extents, from mechanical scraping to overgrowth by exotic species.
This is not heavy or extensive development and certainly does not mean these areas cannot be restored to their former rockland state. The pine rocklands pictured below (Fig 3) regrew from the similarly scraped limestone surroundings of Richmond Naval Air Station’s blimp mooring pads (See my post here for more information).
History of the CRC Property
The property known as CRC has a long history of clearing and development… (Ram 4-5)
While subjected to fire suppression, human disturbances, and neglect the CRC site has not been significantly developed (only 12% of the property). From 1938 to the present all significant development has remained virtually within the footprint of the 1942-1944 military developments (Fig 4).
Human Footprint on the CRC Property
The human footprint on this property is evident over the last 70 or more years.
Yes, a minority of the site does show the impact of human mismanagement and development but it is not irreparable. In contrast the historically altered areas around Zoo Miami today are home to some of the best pine rockland habitat, thanks to proper management.
USFWS Designated Critical Habitat
Portions of the CRC also include USFWS designated critical habitat for the Florida leafwing butterfly and [Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly (BSHB)], and … for the Carter’s small flowered flax and Florida brickell-bush.” (Ram 14)
Ram’s use of “portions” is, at best, purposefully misstating the facts; a majority of CRC, 65% (90.2 acres), is Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly and Florida leafwing butterfly critical habitat (Ram 42, 50). A further overlapping 104 acres (75%) of CRC is designated critical habitat for two plants, Florida brickell-bush and Carter’s small flowered flax (Fig 5).
By the numbers in the HCP Ram proposes the development of ~43% of the butterflies’ and ~50% of the plants’ USFWS designated critical habitat.
Land Use/Vegetative Communities:
I’ve color-coded Ram’s map of CRC land use; you can see the significant tracts of pine rocklands (dark green) present on the site (Fig 6). The degraded areas which Ram terms “pine rocklands” (yellow) are centrally located and coincide with the limited areas of development on the site (red).
Limited Surveys for Imperiled Species:
Based on the information in this HCP Ram has not conducted adequate biological surveys on the CRC property. Surveys for Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly only took place in September and October of 2014. While the Florida bonneted bat (FBB) breeding season is June through September (Ram 45), Ram conducted acustic surveys in August and September 2014 . Just a few days were spent on botanical inventories of the whole CRC property (September 26/27/28, October 10, and November 4, 2014) (Ram 40).
These limited surveys do not provide adequate data on the species which may occur in CRC. At a minimum Ram must conduct surveys throughout a target species’ activity period, not the final month(s).
Admitted Take of Listed Species
Ram’s HCP clearly states that listed species will taken (killed) and severely impacted. In the construction of CRC several tiny polygala, a Federally listed plant, will be destroyed.
CRC development will also destroy 41% (133 plants) of the site’s pineland croton (Ram 43). Pineland croton is the host plant for two Federally listed butterflies, Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly (BSHB) and Florida leafwing butterfly.
“Incidental take of BSHB is not anticipated… (Ram 149)”
While Ram does claim an eventual increase in pineland croton through managed plantings, it is doubtful that the construction and required amount of time would be survivable for BSHB in the absence of significant amounts (41%) of its host plant, representing a highly likelihood of take [killing] for another listed species.
Surveys of Coral Reef Commons for the Miami Tiger Beetle
The CRC property was surveyed [for the Miami tiger beetle]
[No Miami tiger beetles] were documented within the CRC during surveys.
Ram Coral Reef also objects to characterization of the CRC property as suitable habitat for the Miami tiger beetle.
I’ve previously covered this blanket assertion; here I’ll let USFWS answer:
It is unknown if the Miami tiger beetle occurs on the proposed development site, as only one limited survey has been conducted on a small portion (approximately 1.7 ha (4.3 ac)) of the proposed development area and more surveys are needed.
Based upon available information, it appears that the proposed developments will likely impact suitable or potentially suitable beetle habitat, because roughly 33 acres of the proposed development are planned for intact and degraded pine rocklands
This single CRC survey took place in a highly neglected area; there are numerous areas on the CRC aerial images which appear far more suitable. Both University of Miami and Ram Realty have blocked scientists, including myself, from conducting surveys on the property.
Miami Tiger Beetle Species and Listing Status
On January 14, 2015 and February 27, 2015, Ram Coral Reef filed a Technical and Legal Submittal regarding the emergency petition and a supplemental response Appendix E.
… Ram Coral Reef submitted formal comments to the USFWS raising concerns regarding the listing of the so-called MTB, including taxonomy concerns.
In moving forward with this HCP and including the MTB, Ram Coral Reef retains all rights to contest the potential listing of the Miami tiger beetle.
Ram included their submittals on the Miami tiger beetle in the HCP but I’ve thoroughly addressed these documents in an exhaustive post here. Since I’ve already responded to Ram’s bold assertion that the MTB is not a full species, I’ll defer the USFWS response here:
10. Is the Miami tiger beetle a separate species …?
Yes. The most current peer-reviewed scientific information confirms that the Miami tiger beetle (Cicindelidia floridana) is a separate species, and this taxonomy is used by the scientific community. Q&A MTB Proposed Listing Rule
Despite their protestations Ram does not have any “right” to contest the potential listing of the Miami tiger beetle. The listing decision is up the USFWS, who examine “the best scientific and commercial data available.”
Planned Development: Alternative 6
Though Ram characterizes their current plan (Fig 7-9) for the development of CRC as balanced, a compromise between development and preserves (Ram 84-85), it is not:
Fig 7. Plan of CRC development under alternative 6 (preferred alternative)
MDC’s §24-49.2 Code of Ordinance… regulates the development of areas designated as [natural forest communities (NFC)].
Under the maximum allowable development of NFC’s only 34.6 acres of pine rocklands… 4.9 acres of plantings… [and] 3.3 acres of the rockland hammock area would be required to be preserved. (Ram 83)
Under this preferred alternative Ram’s “enlarged” preserves are only 16% greater than before and just 23% greater than the minimum legally required (Ram 83, 85).
Ram is not compromising; they retain 92% of the development area, reduce commercial square footage by only 22%, and the number of residential units remains unchanged (Ram 85).
Ram’s Functional Assessments
The Applicant developed the two functional assessment in order to be able to scientifically and objectively assess the functional value of the existing site conditions, impacted areas, and proposed mitigation areas. (Ram 93)
These functional assessments are not peer-reviewed and have not been utilized by the broader scientific community. They require independent review and testing before Ram can honestly make qualitative claims about the CRC habitats.
Ram’s goals laid out in the HCP are
6.1.1 Biological Goals
“1. Reduce extinction risk of the federally listed species that may occur within CRC, increase population numbers and enhance long-term viability of these populations by preserving, restoring and managing CRC preserves in perpetuity” (Ram 108)
With the range of metro Miami-Dade pine rocklands reduced by over 98% and the remaining habitat severely fragmented, the possibility for any genetic flow is highly restricted already. By further isolating and confining species into two separate “preserves,” with virtually no ability of movement in or out, no amount of habitat restoration will remedy this lack of genetic diversity, thus stifling long-term population viability.
6.1.2 Biological Objectives
“Objective #1: Preserve pine rocklands and rockland hammock within CRC” (Ram 108)
Ram’s proposed development will destroy 41-45% the site’s pine rocklands, a globally imperiled habitat. That’s an F for this objective.
Further Loss of Pine Rockland Habitat
Firebreaks will be a minimum width of 10 feet… but may vary depending on fuel loads. (Ram 120)
The amount of “preserved” habitat which will be lost to mowed or masticated firebreaks is not accounted for in the proposed preserves areas and will mean yet more habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and potential “take” of imperiled species.
In this document Ram does not present a cohesive plan or adequate prevention measures to counteract water run-off into from the imperious surfaces which will cover a majority of the property. With the abundance of rainfall in south Florida any water run-off into the preserves can have severe disruptive consequences, both through physical damage to the area and through contamination.
Contrary to Ram’s repeated insistence, the Coral Reef Commons site and its pine rocklands are not beyond restoration. Developing almost two-thirds (~60%) of the site is not the answer. With adequate management and protection from any further development these globally imperiled forests can be restored. Let’s save this irreplaceable piece of Florida’s natural history, not pave it.
Ram Realty’s Habitat Conservation Plan (May 2015). Available here.