Miami Wilds sues, accusing Miami-Dade mayor of caving to please conservation voters

Political decisions by a mayor seeking reelection killed the Miami Wilds water park, developers said in court filings as they seek damages from Miami-Dade County over the scuttled venture on the Zoo Miami campus.

“Mayor Cava made a political decision to kill the Development Agreement and appease some of the political activists who make up her base,” Miami Wilds said in court filings Monday.

READ MORE: County will need to rescind Miami Wilds deal for water park at zoo, mayor says in memo

The filing is the first time Miami Wilds has tried to assign motives for Levine Cava switching positions last year on the long-standing plan to let private developers build a water park on existing zoo parking lots in South Miami-Dade.

Asked about the Miami Wilds claims after Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, Levine Cava responded: “That’s ridiculous.”

In August, Levine Cava recommended amending the development agreement to work around problems caused by conservation groups blocking federal approval of the project on county land that once belonged to the National Parks Service.

But as Zoo Miami’s own high-profile spokesperson, Ron Magill, joined the conservation groups in publicly opposing the project in September, Levine Cava paused her support, saying she wanted to “take a deeper dive” on the matter.

Two months later, Levine Cava came out against the deal. Her administration canceled the development agreement and then took Miami Wilds to court to formalize the termination after the project missed year-end construction deadlines mandated in the original 2022 agreement.

READ MORE: Miami-Dade and Miami Wilds had a water-park deal. Now the county is ready to kill it

The recent Miami Wilds filing is a response to that February suit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court and includes a counter-claim with allegations against Levine Cava. As the Democratic mayor in a nonpartisan post seeks a second four-year term in August, Miami Wilds alleges that she terminated the project’s county lease “all to appease her base ahead of election season.”

People wave their hands in support of speakers voicing opposition to Miami Wilds water park during the public comment portion of a Miami-Dade County Commission meeting on Sept. 6, 2023. The project never won the votes needed on the County Commission to secure a new development deal with Miami-Dade with extended construction deadlines after a court fight slowed the venture’s timeline. Jose A. Iglesias/

The mayor’s spokesperson issued a statement Tuesday rejecting the claims by Miami Wilds.

“Politics has nothing to do with her positions,” said Natalia Jaramillo, the mayor’s communications director, noting that Levine Cava has always insisted that environmental concerns be resolved by the Miami Wilds developers. “When it became clear that the hurdles with the federal government remained, the proposed project grew more challenging and extensions were exhausted at this point.”

Miami Wilds didn’t attach a dollar amount to the damages it wants from Miami-Dade, which could include expenses the developers spent so far and lost revenue from the scuttled project.

READ MORE: At Zoo Miami, Ron Magill draws a crowd. This time, to fight a zoo project: Miami Wilds

A version of the Miami Wilds project has been in the mix for decades. In 2006, developers secured passage of a countywide referendum to build an entertainment center on zoo property as long as the construction didn’t hurt the environment.

Levine Cava voted for the development deal in 2020 when she was still a commissioner and weeks away from being elected mayor. Her administration also negotiated the lease on 28 acres of zoo property, an agreement that won commission approval in 2022.

The Tropical Audubon Society and other conservation groups sued the National Parks Service after the vote. The suit claimed the agency erred in granting approval of the project without a mandated study of potential environmental harms to the land, which Magill and others argue is vital feeding grounds for endangered bats living in the adjoining forest.

The National Parks Service last year conceded the review was needed, and the court win was cited by the Levine Cava administration as a reason to cancel the Miami Wilds deal. In December, the Biden administration gave conservation groups another win when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a statement saying the Miami Wilds site likely contains critical bat habitat.

In its suit, Miami Wilds says the Levine Cava administration refused to help launch the formal environmental review needed to see whether habitat issues would actually sink the project. Miami Wilds lawyer Mitchell Jagodinski said in an interview that under the terms of the development agreement, the county was obligated to cooperate with the review.

“This is really just a self-inflicted wound by Mayor Cava,” he said.