Calusa rookery shows active nesting where they want to build 550 homes

Neighbors hope county or state will step in and save the natural preserve

There’s indisputable proof now: Photographic evidence of threatened Florida birds nesting at the Calusa rookery in the middle of the abandoned golf course in Kendall that developers want to pave over for 550 homes.

Miami-Dade Commissioners in November approved a zoning change from park space to high density residential, but that was before they could see these photos taken recently of a nest and what is obviously at least two little blue eggs tended to by Floria tricolored herons, a native state bird that is on the threatened and imperiled list.

Both the Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management has confirmed that at least one tri-colored heron nest exists.

That means it has protections.

There has since been a second nest that is harder to see. Makes sense. There are dozens of nests in the photos taken from a backyard that abuts the golf course by David and Victoria Horn. They have captured egrets and anhingas in mating plumage and collecting nesting material as well as feeding their young. And the tri-colored heron’s nest.

Read related: Calusa veto never came, but Miami-Dade’s Alcaldesa promises ‘protections’

There’s also a photo of an Everglades snail kite, an endangered species that is estimated at 1,000 left because of loss of wetlands. Not nesting. But hanging out. Shows the high amount of bird activity in this habitat.

This vindicates residents who fought the development, in part because of the overgrown, 168-acre property has become an organic natural home for the tricolored heron and other protected species, like the endangered bonneted bat, which they also have acoustic evidence of.

“We were right all along,” said Amanda Prieto, an abutting homeowner who leads the Save Calusa neighborhood group.

Developers GL Homes and owner Facundo Bacardi, of the famous Cuban rum, weren’t wrong. They were lying. They were never interested in the truth because it is inconvenient to them. They want the mammoth profit that is due to them when they build 550 suburban homes. They want their payday. That’s why their bird survey was done outside of nesting season.

What else have they misled the county about?

They certainly didn’t want any nests to be found or any case to be made for the wildlife. That’s why they started clearing trees and displacing birds only two weeks after the November vote. They mowed lawns and sprayed pesticides and did everything they could to kill and scare away the animals, which also include many other birds, squirrels and at least one fox family.

Because they know this could change the course of the development.

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When she failed to veto the zoning change last November, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava promised to revisit the plans if evidence of protected species was found. “If state or federally listed bird species are determined to be utilizing the rookery, the rookery will be preserved, and the developer will be required to modify their proposed development plan to accommodate preservation of the rookery,” she wrote in a memo then.

Well, it’s been determined.

“We’re expecting her to preserve it but we don’t know how. We are waiting on the bats and waiting on the court to get a brand new hearing,” Prieto said. “And this time we’ll have all the complete reports.”

That’s because environmental reports were lacking when the commission gave developers GL Homes the zoning change in November. Can the mayor come back now and tweak the plan? Prieto says the motion on the change was worded so the site plan must be altered to preserve protected species.

The Florida Wildlife Commission has guidelines that call for a minimum of 330 feet 360 degrees all around the rookery. That could be about five of the 168 acres.

“But would there be a berm and a line of trees to protect it from noise and light? Would it be fenced off as a preserve,” Prieto asked. “Would it be a public park, like the one the parks department originally recommended? Will they donate it to the county?

“Or will they include it as an amenity for their private community?”

Five acres for nature is nice. But if U.S. Fish and Wildlife can confirm the roosting of the bats, it could be 50 acres. Or more. They’re absolutely foraging there. Florida bonneted bats require both roosting and foraging habitats to be protected for the recovery and survival of the species. The Calusa preserve is perfect for them to launch a rebound.

Read related: Calusa developers try to scare away wildlife before county mandated study

“It’s quiet. There’s no light. There is a lot of open space. There are tees. There’s food,” Prieto said. “Everything they need for foraging and nesting is what this property has.”

The Bat Lab at ZooMiami found that Calusa had the fourth highest bat activity in the county, with more than 7,000 calls a night. ZooMiami, with the most activity, has over 13,000 calls a night. Granada Golf Course is number 2 with 9,000 calls and Tropical Park is number 3 with 8,000.

Frankly, the site modification should be nothing short of total preservation. There’s no other land like this east of the Everglades. Perhaps anywhere in the world. Any development could disrupt a fragile ecosystem. Even if the developers carve the rookery out of their plans, the surrounding ground-shaking construction could displace wildlife anyway.

And can we trust them? These are the same people who did nesting surveys outside the season. They sprayed weeds in January for “ongoing maintenance” of an abandoned and overgrown golf course that hasn’t seen a lawnmower in 10 years. And removed trees without permits.

If there was ever a case for eminent domain, this is it. The county already lost a tremendous opportunity to buy that land when it went for $2.6 million in 2003. The $32 million sale in 2019 was predicated (read: speculative) on the zoning change so maybe the county can get it for the old (read: real) value.

Read related: Tree removal at Calusa causes concern for promised wildlife protections

Commissioner Raquel Regalado made the case, without knowing it, when she voted against moving the Urban Development Boundary at the May 19 Comprehensive Development Master Plan meeting.

“My district does not abut the UDB, but I do represent a district, like some other people on this dais, who, to protect the UDB, endures the density that we talk about all the time,” Regalado said at the meeting. “So when we sat here and voted on Calusa and we had neighbors who believe that a golf course was green space and we talked about the need to develop within the line we have these very difficult conversations.”

She should know. She voted in favor of the zoning change in November.

“At some point we need to face the reality that there are environmentally endangered lands within the line and there are environmentally endangered lands outside of the line,” Regalado said. “Not all lands are created equal. And we do have lands inside the UDB that should be protected.

“And I believe that we have a obligation as a county to protect those lands.”

Regalado specifically named the pine rocklands by ZooMiami and the 190 acres of wetlands rezoned for the American Dream Mall that still hasn’t broken ground. But she could have just as easily been talking about Calusa. Could this be buyer’s regret?

And might she get a second chance to vote the right way?

Read related: Miami-Dade Commission votes to kill Calusa preserve for Kendall developer

Prieto and Save Calusa are still fighting the vote in court, arguing that the proper notice was not made. The judge heard oral arguments in March. If they win, the zoning change would have to come back to the commission for a brand new hearing.

“While we eagerly await the court’s ruling on our petition to quash the county commission’s approval,we are calling on the mayor to follow through on her no-veto message and protect this vulnerable habitat,” said their attorney, David Winker.

“GL Homes and its CEO Dick Norwalk have taken the ‘what wildlife?’ approach and ignored the science and evidence from Day 1,” Winker said.

“Unfortunately for the bad guys, residents took him up on his challenge and have proven that the federally protected tri-colored heron and the endangered bonneted bat make their home there.”