Neighbors don’t want FIU to use road through preserve, but Legislature gives its OK

1 Fort Lauderdale

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State lawmakers have paved the way for Florida International University to open a road through North Miami’s environmental preserve, over the objections of some residents.

Those who live near Arch Creek East Environmental Preserve on Northeast 135th Street say they are not giving up without a fight. At least one North Miami councilman agrees with them. Councilman Scott Galvin has already asked the city attorney to look into its legal options.

“This is a David and Goliath fight and we feel like we are an ant getting stepped on,” said Eddie Perez, who lives on the street. “But there is a lot of fight left.”

Late last week, Florida legislators approved an amendment that would essentially allow the state university to open a second entry and exit to its Biscayne Bay Campus for security purposes. Although the legislation doesn’t specify 135th Street, it says North Miami can’t block the university from using the existing road.

The FIU language was filed as an amendment to multiple bills in the final days of session before it was finally added to a successful bill about autocycles late Friday night.

The university made a last-minute plea to legislators to add language to existing bills that would allow them to use North Miami’s land for access to the university. The university cited the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland as a reason to have more access to the sprawling campus that is accessible now only on Northeast 151st Street.

FIU President Mark Rosenberg said opening 135th Street makes the most sense because a road already exists — even though the city has blocked it off to vehicular traffic. The work to open it to cars would be minimal and the most cost-efficient alternative, he said.

The university also stressed that the traffic on the current entrance road, Northeast 151st Street, is compounded because there are three Miami-Dade County public schools on the street: Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School, the David Lawrence K-8 Center and The Marine Academy of Science and Technology at FIU.

“We are grateful to the Florida Legislature for all their support this year, in particular for addressing the elementary, high school and college student safety issue in and around our Biscayne Bay Campus,” Rosenberg said in an email.

This is not the first time the issue has gone before the Legislature. In 2011, a similar measure failed after North Miami lobbied against the road, saying it would destroy the area and strip the city of its “home rule” ability to control its own land.

This time around, Galvin and the residents launched a campaign against the move as soon as they caught wind of the university’s “eleventh-hour” push.

Some Democrats tried to block the amendments by raising questions about whether the amendment was related to the various bills it was attached to.

Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who added the FIU clause to a local government bill Wednesday, said the language does not require FIU to use a route through the existing preserve.

“Just because there is an existing exit going out does not mean that you cannot build another existing egress point out,” he said. The language, he said, does not in anyway name FIU or specify what road it must use.

He also contended, in response to a question from Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, that the preserve was one in name only, officially designated by the city.

It “isn’t actually an environmental preserve, they have just named it a preserve,” he said. “It does not have any specific distinction” by the state or federal government.

That bill passed the House but was not taken up by the Senate.

When the FIU provision was attached again to the autocycles bill late Friday night — which was originally supposed to be the last day of the session — it passed on a voice vote despite a few belated no’s shouted from the back. The bill it was attached to, already passed by the Senate, was approved by the House 91-10.

But Galvin said that action will not stop him and the residents from trying to keep the area as a preserve.

“It’s not an option to just quietly walk away,” Galvin said. “People’s passion on this preserve runs very deep.”

In 2007, the city dedicated the 13-acre area as the Arch Creek East Environmental Preserve. The council at the time did so to make sure the prime piece of real estate would not be developed.

The preserve has become very popular with the street’s 1,000 residents and others in the surrounding area. In addition, the Urban Paradise Guild has been working for five years on habitat restoration projects, including removing invasive plants and planting mangroves, according to Sam Van Leer, the president and founder of the group. In August, the guild was given a $17,000 grant by the Miami Foundation to continue removing invasive species like Australian pines.

Galvin and the residents contend the traffic is compounded by the university’s own expansion. They also say the university can seek out other options including Northeast 163rd Street to the north. The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

“This is essentially stealing our land,” he said.

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