Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: UM wrong in sale of fragile land

Florida has a fragile ecosystem in desperate need of conscientious stewards.

From endangered animals and disappearing habitats to polluted rivers, drying springs and eroding beaches, our natural resources beg for appreciation, care and restorative action.

That’s why it’s so hard to understand how the University of Miami’s leadership could have thought it was a good idea to sell to a developer a 135-acre site that includes a unique habitat for endangered plants and animals — one that only exists in this tract between two national parks in south Miami-Dade and in the Bahamas.

But, preposterous as it sounds, UM has sold for $22.1 million the tract of pine rockland off Coral Reef Drive and Southwest 127th Avenue to a Palm Beach County developer, Ram Realty Services, known for building dense shopping and housing projects.

The developer plans to add to the already crowded, sensitive area 900 apartments plus a Walmart, an LA Fitness Center, and Chik-fil-A and Chili’s restaurants.

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To the university, the sale was “a business decision,” made in “good faith,” “transparent,” and “in compliance” with Department of Environmental Resources Management requirements, a UM spokeswoman said Friday.

Eight advertised public hearings were held, and according to UM, no one objected to the project.

Hard to believe, but regardless, it’s as if the university’s leadership existed in a bubble, unaware of the environmental challenges facing its community. How can a university that’s home to the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Abess Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy put sensitive land in the hands of developers?

“Educating the next generation of environmental leaders,” the Abess Center promises on its website.

As lawyer Dennis Olle, a board member of Tropical Audubon and the North American Butterfly Association, told the Herald: “Shame on UM.”

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Shame on DERM, the county’s environmental authority, which approved all this on the promise that 43 acres would go to a preserve. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now asking the developer to stop building until the agency can assess the threat to endangered species — a welcome development, but something that should have occurred long ago.

And shame on the Community Council for Area 14, the county’s Planning Advisory Board, the Miami-Dade Commission and the South Florida Regional Council — which all approved the sale and project.

Some argue that the South Campus land was an asset that wasn’t properly cared for, and that through the sale UM ensured perpetual preservation of at least some of it.

But if a leading educational institution isn’t sensitive to the environmental plight of this state, then who is? If an educational institution chooses to participate in the rampant over-development of this state to the detriment of the conservation of a unique and endangered ecosystem, who’s left to inspire others to care?

Government hasn’t been a responsible steward, and in this case, neither were UM President Donna Shalala and UM’s Board of Trustees, made up of influential Miamians.

UM might have acted above board and in its best financial interest, but that doesn’t make the sale right.

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