MIAMI HERALD ARTICLE: "Make room, eagles: Walmart is coming"

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MIAMI HERALD ARTICLE: "Make room, eagles: Walmart is coming"

Make room, eagles: Walmart is coming
03/20/2015 7:18 PM  Updated 03/21/2015 11:38 AM

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Tiny Palm Springs North, a bedroom community suddenly under siege from an onslaught of malls, mega and otherwise, may have found two surprising but powerful allies: a pair of nesting bald eagles.

A resident spotted the nest, one of only two active ones documented in Miami-Dade County, earlier this year atop an Australian pine in a 28-acre cow pasture. It’s the same tract where a developer had previously unveiled plans for a mall anchored by a scaled-down Walmart supermarket, a Ross Dress for Less, a HomeGoods and other national chains.

“It was a majestic looking, amazing thing,” said Victor Mallo, who fumbled to snap a picture one morning as he drove past. “I’m frantically trying to Facebook that they’re here, and then the eagle gets on the edge of the nest and takes a dive.”

The discovery of the iconic birds, at the very least, seems likely to complicate plans for one particular project in the once-sleepy community on the county’s Northwestern fringe, which earlier this month was blindsided by plans for a far more massive complex touted as the nation’s largest mall.

State and federal wildlife rules restrict development near active eagle nests. And work to widen an adjacent county road has already been shut down.

Developer Robert L. Shapiro has pledged to protect the nest, but doesn’t see it as major roadblock. He said his mall, like his other projects, will become a “landmark” center and he objected to any comparison to another Walmart-related project on endangered pine rockland near Zoo Miami that has drawn protests and online petitions.

“It’s totally different,” he said. “This is a single bird. And it has nothing to do with the fact that the property is undeveloped and has no butterflies or anything like that. There’s nothing other than the eagles. If the tree blew down in a hurricane, there would be no issue.”

Shapiro’s mall, which would include more than 250,000 square feet of retail, has already cleared one of many hurdles it faces. On March 12, the area’s community council signed off on rezoning the pasture near Northwest 186th Street — despite neighbors’ objections over traffic from nearby I-75 clogging their streets.

But the presence of eagles, not only a symbol of conservation but national pride, can be a more formidable — but not necessarily permanent — obstacle to development. In 2004, after a nest believed to be the first outside Everglades National Park was spotted in Doral, a developer was asked to stop construction on about 40 homes until nesting season ended.

“Bottom line, you cannot take eagles. That’s it,” said Ulgonda Kirkpatrick, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional eagle biologist, using the agency term for harm. “You cannot [disturb] a nesting pair or cause them to abandon their nests.”

But exactly how that protection plays out is tricky.

“You try to be Solomon-esque,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, whose district covers the area.

Federal and state laws allow developers to obtain permits that, in theory, protect wildlife while balancing property owners’ rights with conservation measures. But the process can be messy. Negotiations over the other contentious Walmart project in rare butterfly and bat habitat near Zoo Miami has dragged on for months, prompting protests and online petitions that claim to have 90,000 supporters. Developer Ram Realty is still working on a critical habitat plan to satisfy federal wildlife managers.

Eagles were taken off state and federal endangered species lists several years ago after conservation led to a dramatic rebound over the last half century. But in Southeast Florida they remain rare. The state has only recorded four nests in the county since 1987. Monroe County has about nine, although the state does not document all nests.

Biologists don’t completely understand why, given the proximity of the Everglades and large bays. Florida’s eagle coordinator, Michelle van Deventer, thinks eagles may have avoided Southeast Florida while flocking back to the rest of the state in dramatic numbers — Florida has one of the densest populations in the U.S. outside Alaska — because not enough big trees exist to support nests that can weigh a ton and grow up to 13 feet wide. A 2013 study suggests they lack food needed to support themselves and chicks.

In recent years, neighbors say development has gobbled up the Palm Spring North area just north of Miami Lakes, jamming neighborhood roads. And it stands to get much worse. While mounting a fight against the relatively modest mall, called Palm Springs Plaza, and a proposed charter school nearby, another developer announced plans to open the American Dream Mall, a mega mall that hopes to introduce, among other things, indoor snow skiing to muggy South Florida, just across I-75.

“They just continue to let development come at the expense of the residents already here,” said Palm Springs North Civic Association President Pat Collado, who said Shapiro originally suggested a Walmart supercenter. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

Shapiro, who developed the London Square mall near the Tamiami airport, said he will comply with whatever eagle laws require and has already made concessions to residents: The Walmart won’t operate round-the-clock as originally planned, and a traffic light will be placed on Northwest 87th Avenue, the main road into the neighborhood.

He also argued that no neighbors objected when the community council signed off on the rezoning earlier this month.

That’s because “the neighborhood is looking at it as the lesser of two evils,” said Mike Rodriguez, a financial services development manager who moved there in 2012 to be near his wife’s parents, longtime residents. “The neighborhood is just tired. ... I was already telling my wife we’re going to have to move.”

For Mallo, whose father came from Cuba in the 1960s to raise his family in the neighborhood, the land was a training ground. He remains an avid hunter. His smartphone is like a trophy case, filled with pictures of his boys and wife with wild hogs and alligators. When he first spotted the eagle — another woman photographing them drew his attention — he knew the nest was something special, although exactly what was a mystery until he researched it online.

“It was exactly like every Google picture of an eagle nest,” he said.

Van Deventer said she has already warned the developer that the gas station, bank, grocery store, shoe store, fitness club and other businesses proposed for the site cannot bother the nest. A 100-foot buffer is generally recommended as long as the nest remains, she said.

“We try to make sure the integrity of the nesting tree is not compromised,” she said.

Guidelines also restrict work during nesting, which ends in mid-May. Kirkpatrick, the federal wildlife manager, also advised county officials to give the birds a 330-foot buffer during road construction.

As for the mall plans, Kirkpatrick said federal officials would carefully evaluate any proposal that dramatically changes the use of nearby land. If the developer built homes, which already surround the pasture on three sides, that wouldn’t change the eagles’ surroundings by much, she said. But a mall?

“It’s completely outside what the birds are used to,” she said. “In this case, there’s no other shopping center within 330 feet.”

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