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Gov. DeSantis Rejects Order Opposing Highway Across Everglades Wetlands

Miami Herald archives

A plan to extend one of South Florida’s busiest highways across Everglades wetlands is back in play after Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet rejected a judge's order that found the expressway failed to comply with state growth laws.

In a three-to-one vote, DeSantis and the Cabinet agreed to write a new order based on a proposal filed by Miami-Dade County. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democratic Cabinet member, voted to uphold the judge’s order.

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It’s not yet clear what details the new order will contain, but attorney Richard Grosso — who represents Tropical Audubon — said opponents will appeal the decision.

“It's incredibly disappointing and surprising for them to take such a gratuitous, aggressive action against the Everglades when all they had to do was uphold the law judge's recommendation,” he said. "They seemingly went out of their way to say yes to Dade County and the Expressway Authority to continue this boondoggle.”

Environmentalists have consistently opposed the expressway championed by former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, because it crosses wetlands in the Bird Drive Basin.

The wetlands were once part of the headwaters for Shark River Slough and now help protect the county’s western wellfield. The only Everglades Restoration project designed to help Biscayne Bay would use part of the basin, although how much remains unclear. The project was included in the sprawling plan approved by Congress in 2000, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just restarted design work last year.

DeSantis said he believed the county had met the threshold for hashing out the amendment to its comprehensive plan and that the law required the Cabinet to defer to local authority if it was “fairly debated.”

“Two big issues that I kept seeing come up were, one, whether this is a good idea in terms of taxpayers and then to what impact it will have on state interests in terms of Everglades restoration,” he said. “In terms of the former, that’s a political decision. That’s a local decision.”

As for harm to dwindling wetlands or hindering the Everglades restoration plan — now expected to cost $23 billion — DeSantis said environmental permitting would provide protection.

“If some of the things that are happening, that are posited, do happen, I don't think it's going to get permitted by the South Florida Water Management District,” he said.

Gimenez did not attend Tuesday’s meeting. His chief of staff, Alex Ferro, read remarks on his behalf.

The Kendall Parkway is the first realistic project to give our community an additional option to the daily gridlock that has become an everyday reality for many of us,” he read. “This project is not without controversy, but sadly, the reasons against it are not based in reality.”

The stand-off put DeSantis, who has made Everglades restoration a centerpiece of his administration, in an awkward position.

Last week, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said a highway should not cross “a Congressionally-authorized project that protects Everglades restoration” and said the nonprofit remained opposed to it.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the Foundation’s attorney, Anna Upton, urged the cabinet to again stick with the judge’s order.

The question is whether Miami-Dade County, at the request of the rogue and now legislatively dissolved Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, also known as MDX, followed the law and its own rules,” she said. “The administrative law judge found that the county did not. And from an Everglades perspective, these lands really can't be replaced. You can build a road in a different location. You can't get these lands back.”

County officials have maintained that they complied with the county growth plan that vows to protect wetlands and farm fields by including requirements that wetlands be purchased. The additional highway could not be used for additional road capacity to allow future development.

The judge, said Assistant County Attorney Dennis Kerbel, “did not find that the project had any fatal flaws that could not be addressed through subsequent permitting processes.”

Kerbel argued those findings should have been “enough” to find the plan in compliance.

“She should have recognized that the plan amendment provides real environmental benefits,” he said.

Instead, Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk found the proposed highway provided meager relief to commuters and that the county failed to prove that it was consistent with its comprehensive growth plan.

“Commuters will drive 13 miles, outside of the [urban development boundary], through active agricultural lands, through environmentally-sensitive lands, and through the West Wellfield, only to connect with the existing expressway operating at an [level of service] lower than it operates at today,” she wrote.

During a two-week hearing in 2019, a county expert testified that the extra highway would shave just six minutes off downtown commutes.

During the hearing, DeSantis and the Cabinet gave little hint about what findings of fact they disagreed with, other than a conclusion that nearby wetlands were designated critical habitat — an error environmentalists conceded.

“It didn't have any legal impacts whatsoever, so it's going to be hard to see how they're going to translate that into a different outcome,” Grosso said. “It will be interesting to see what they draft and how they’re going to justify rejecting her findings.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.