Miami-Dade faces suit over water park, hotel project near zoo

Conservationists argue Paul Lambert’s development would rise on environmentally sensitive land

Michael Diaz Jr., Bernard Zyscovich, Paul Lambert and renderings of the Miami Wilds project (Zyscovich, Linkedin, Diaz Reus LLP, Getty, Paul Lambert, National Park Service, Center for Biological Diversity)
Michael Diaz Jr., Bernard Zyscovich, Paul Lambert and renderings of the Miami Wilds project (Zyscovich, Linkedin, Diaz Reus LLP, Getty, Paul Lambert, National Park Service, Center for Biological Diversity)

After years of delays, plans for the controversial Miami Wilds water park gained ground this summer when the developer leased the project site. But a new lawsuit adds another twist to the proposed development that has been in the works for a decade.

Developers Paul Lambert, Bernard Zyscovich and Michael Diaz Jr. want to build the water park with a 200-key hotel and up to 20,000 square feet of restaurants and shops on 27.5 acres of parking lots immediately north of Zoo Miami in an unincorporated area of south Miami-Dade County.

Lambert leads Miami-based real estate and economic advisory firm Lambert Advisory, although the company isn’t involved in Miami Wilds. Zyscovich is an architect who designed the Miami Wilds hotel but not the water park, and Diaz is an attorney.

The site is nestled in the Richmond Pine Rockland, considered one of the biggest and most biodiverse pine rockland habitats outside Everglades National Park. It’s this location that’s been at the heart of environmentalists’ yearslong pushback against Miami Wilds.

In the latest contention, nonprofits Bat Conservation International and Tropical Audubon Society, as well as Tropical Audubon President Jose Barros, sued Miami-Dade County last week, alleging the county is illegally allowing the development to proceed. Miami-Dade officials and the developers signed the lease for the county-owned site on June 23. The developers aren’t named defendants.

The project can’t go through without voter approval, a county requirement for the development of a public park such as the Miami Wilds site, according to the complaint, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. An approved 2006 referendum only allowed development of county zoo property that is not environmentally sensitive, which the Miami Wilds site “clearly” is, the complaint says.

The Richmond tract is home to endangered species such as the Miami tiger beetle, Florida bonneted bat, Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly and Florida Leafwing butterfly, conservationists and the suit say. The parking lot slated for Miami Wilds is a foraging area for the bat, and it’s vital to keep it as an open space that’s dark at night so as not to disturb the foraging area and allow for the fires necessary for the ecosystem to function properly, according to the complaint.

The suit is a push to ensure Miami-Dade “lives up to its obligations under the county charter to protect public park property, and that it respects the will of the voters who did not approve the commercial development of environmentally sensitive land,” Enrique Arana, the attorney who filed the complaint, said in an emailed statement.

The developers, with the county’s involvement and oversight, have been conducting all the required surveys, including surveys for the beetle and butterfly. “To date, nothing has been identified in the project area consistent with the protocols of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Lambert told The Real Deal. Recent environmental habitat studies have been related to the bat, he said.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

As for the county, it will ensure that no construction will proceed unless environmental requirements are met, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said in an emailed statement.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation nonprofits have homed in on a key issue: federal agencies’ alleged failure to designate areas as critical habitat for the bat under deadlines set by the Endangered Species Act. The environmental groups sued federal agencies in July over the matter. The Miami Wilds development site likely could be designated as a critical habitat for the bat, the more recent Miami circuit court complaint claims.

In addition, conservation nonprofits also have sent intent-to-sue letters to federal agencies alleging they signed off on land use changes for Miami Wilds without ensuring the development won’t impact animals, and that they failed to designate a critical habitat for the beetle, according to attachments to the circuit court complaint.

The project traces its roots to 2013 when Lambert won a county solicitation to develop the property. At the time, the plan was for a 100-plus-acre project with a theme park, in partnership with 20th Century Studios, according to Lambert. In 2014, USFWS indicated it might list the beetle and other species as endangered, putting plans on hold and prompting 20th Century’s exit from the venture, he said. Lambert and the county reworked Miami Wilds to its current, smaller scale.

As a county commissioner, Levine Cava pushed for project changes “to better protect the endangered species,” she said in her statement. Levine Cava was a commissioner from 2014 to 2020.

The county will continue to monitor the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and ensure the developer complies with any changes impacting the Miami Wilds site, she said in her statement.

The developers have 36 months to complete the project, Lambert said.

The lawsuits and letters of intent to sue won’t have a long-term effect on plans, he said, although he conceded there is potential for a slowdown in the short term.

“We would have not gone into this and done as much work as we have already done, unless we were fully convinced that what we are planning complies with all the land-use requirements,” Lambert said. “We are delivering the project that the voters asked for, and it’s an important tourism and economic development project — particularly for South Dade.”

Read more