Lawsuit pits Miami development against endangered bats, beetles

One of some 1.5 million bats emerges from below the Congress Street Bridge near downtown Austin
REUTERS/Charlie L. Harper III
  • Suit claims feds approved land swap without full review
  • Waterpark development could eliminate bat feeding ground

Feb 8 (Reuters) - The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) violated environmental laws when it approved the development of a Miami waterpark in an endangered bat’s critical habitat, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by conservation groups.

The Tropical Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity and others told a South Florida federal court that decades of development in the region has already destroyed most of the fragile forest relied upon by the imperiled Florida bonneted bat and other species like the Miami tiger beetle.

Despite “foreseeable” harms, NPS violated environmental laws in June when it approved a deal that would allow the proposed Miami Wilds waterpark and nearby hotel to be built on one of the last available feeding grounds for the bat, the suit claimed.

“The decision essentially greenlit this development without any care or understanding of the impacts to the endangered species, and we know these impacts will be detrimental,” said Elise Bennett, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The U.S. Interior Department, which oversees NPS, declined to comment Wednesday. The developer for Miami Wilds did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The waterpark, nearby hotel and related infrastructure have been proposed on 27.5 acres of land in Miami-Dade County, including portions the county received from the federal government in the 1970s and 1980s through a conveyance requiring the area to be maintained as parkland.

That conveyance requires federal approval before protected lands can be transferred for development, according to the plaintiffs.

When considering the proposal, the government failed to conduct a thorough analysis of the impacts the project’s entire development would have, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, the suit claimed.

The groups are asking the court to set aside the NPS approval and require a review of environmental and endangered species impacts of the proposal.

The suit is Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. Debra Haaland et al., U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, case No. 1:23-cv-20495.

For the plaintiffs: Elise Bennett, Ragan Whitlock and Frances Tinney of the Center for Biological Diversity.

For the government: Counsel not immediately available.

Reporting by Clark Mindock

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