Developers hoping to build a theme park near Zoo Miami and endangered pine rockland have passed an initial hurdle with an endorsement by a county parks committee.

The committee, made up of Miami-Dade county commissioners, heard more than two hours of public comment Friday afternoon before signing off on the deal, which goes before the full county commission in October.

“I keep hearing from people that this is something that’s part of the pine rock area, inside the area. And it’s clearly not unless there’s something wrong with what I’m looking at,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz. “I don’t see a disturbance of any kind.”

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But conservationists say the project, slated for a corner of the zoo parking lot on paved-over pine rockland, could be an opportunity to restore the vanishing forest.

“The notion that this development is only on a parking area and thus will do no damage is simply incorrect,” said biologist Melissa Abdo, who was hired by the county nearly 20 decades ago to survey the remaining remnants of pineland outside Everglades National Park.

“Endangered species utilize this habitat and the siting atop known endangered species habitat would be in defiance of one of our nation’s fundamental laws, the Endangered Species Act,” said Abdo, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. A development like this will poorly impact our city’s reputation, our community health and the economy.”

The project includes a hotel with at least 200 hotel rooms, an 11-acre water park, a 40-acre parking lot shared with the zoo and 25,000-square feet of retail and covers about 27 acres. It’s significantly scaled back from the original 136-acre project first pitched by 20th Century Fox. That project came under fierce criticism after the county signed off on a nearby Walmart shopping center and apartments that wiped out about 90 acres of undeveloped pineland.

The pineland, on a former Navy blimp base, made up the largest intact tract of the rare forest outside Everglades National Park. So little exists in South Florida and the Bahamas — the only place where its open canopy grows on a limestone floor — that many of its inhabitants are now protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now in the process of designating protected habitat for the Florida bonneted bat, the rarest bat in the U.S. that lives in the pineland. The bat uses the parking lot to forage for food, but it’s not yet clear how the project will impact the high-flying bat’s hunting.

Bat Conservation International said five bat houses, which the nonprofit helped erect along with a dozen more around the county, are now all occupied. The group says the bats using the area are the second largest population ever documented and worry that moving ahead with the project will interfere with research to better understand the bat.

dustin smith bonneted bat.jpg

Dustin Smith

A Florida bonneted bat at Zoo Miami.

“The bat is so rare that we have very little room for error. So it really concerns us to be putting a target on one of the areas that’s a known habitat, that’s viable for the species and that can be relied upon as it’s starting the long road to recovery,” said executive director Mike Daulton. “We’re not saying all urban and suburban locations in South Florida are off-limits. We’re not saying parking lots are off-limits. We’re saying this particular area, on the grounds of Zoo Miami, is one of only two critically important stronghold habitats that this largely urban and suburban bat is relying on.”

The Service says a study will need to be done to determine whether it recommends the project developers apply for a ‘take’ permit that would allow them to harm bats.

Ashleigh Blackford, the Service’s at-risk species coordinator for the regional office, said the agency has just begun advising the county on the type of surveys needed.

“Bonneted bats aren’t the only listed species in that area. We have the Miami tiger beetle, the Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly. There’s some listed plants in the area as well,” she said. “So we’ve asked, and although most of the project is on the parking lot, there’s some peripheral edges and a parking lot over there at the Gold Coast Railroad that that isn’t just asphalt.”

The idea for the project, said Commissioner Dennis Moss, was part of a redevelopment effort he lead after Hurricane Andrew slammed the southern end of the county in 1992. Moss was elected the next year and asked for a study on a theme park, hoping the project would provide both jobs and recreation for communities far from beaches.

Moss said the study identified the zoo as the best location and that voters approved the concept in 2006 — although they insisted that the park not damage pine rockland. Term limits imposed by voters in 2012 will force Moss to leave office this fall, just after the lease comes up for a full commission vote.

Partner and architect Bernard Zyscovich said the revised design will create a world-class water park.

“It’s very important to me that I would never participate in anything that would damage our environment. This entire lease is one hundred percent on parking area, asphalted and in very, very bad disrepair,” he said. “It is nothing more than a parking lot and a heat island.