By Gary Nelson

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — In Miami Federal court Wednesday the battle raged over the future of the Richmond Pine Rocklands, about 150 acres by Zoo Miami in Southwest Miami-Dade.

“A lot is at stake here. There are 22 endangered and threatened species on the property, and we’re hopeful we can continue to stop those bulldozers until the merits of our case have been heard,“ said attorney Elise Bennett, one of many representing several environmental organizations.

Environmental groups have, for the moment, blocked the bulldozers that would see a Walmart, big box stores, restaurants, and 900 apartments go up on the land that is home to beetles, snakes, bats, and some plants and animals that are found nowhere else on earth.  Project opponents say the Department of the Interior essentially rubber-stamped the developer’s plans.

“A lot of this was done behind closed doors, completely out of public view,“ said Al Sunshine with the group, Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition. “We demanded a public hearing and we were denied that.”

Hours after bulldozers began clearing the land in December, federal Judge Ursula Ungaro ordered the work stopped, issuing a temporary restraining order, concluding the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits, and the environment likely to suffer permanent harm if the development went forward.

But the government on Wednesday argued that tight oversight will protect the Rockland’s tract.

“The project is not likely to destroy the continuation of any species. Irreparable harm is not going to occur,“ said government attorney Mark Brown.

Attorneys for the developers noted the majority of the Rocklands will be preserved, maintained and protected from invasive species.

Environmental groups say they have been struggling to protect the property for a long time.

“We take this very seriously. The Tropical Audubon Society has been fighting on behalf of the Pine Rocklands for at least 20 years,“ said the Audubon Society’s Erin Clancy.

Environmentalists want a full trial on whether the project, named Coral Reef Commons, will be allowed to go through.

Magistrate Judge William Turnoff heard Wednesday’s arguments and is expected to give his recommendation on whether the restraining order should be lifted to District Judge Ungaro sometime this month.

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