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Should Florida lakes and forests have rights in court? Lawmakers weigh in.

A pre-emption bill from a Spring Hill Republican is gaining bipartisan support even though it defies the Florida Democratic Party’s official platform.
Rep. Blaise Ingoglia on the floor of the Florida House in 2017. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times] [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
Rep. Blaise Ingoglia on the floor of the Florida House in 2017. [SCOTT KEELER | Times] [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

To preserve Florida’s environment, some activists have started pushing an idea that many lawmakers still consider radical: giving natural bodies, like springs and rivers, legal rights.

“This illusion that human good can be achieved at the expense of everything else in the ecosystem, it’s just crumbling before our eyes,” said Margaret Stewart, the director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence. The Rights of Nature movement seeks to gain legal standing for nature in court, so an advocate could bring a lawsuit in which a lake, for instance, or a forest, was the aggrieved party.

Florida’s Legislature wants to stop those efforts before they can really begin. A bill under discussion this session would ban any such measures at the local level.

The Rights of Nature movement drew attention last year when voters in Toledo, Ohio, approved the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Even as that case remains tied up in a federal court challenge, groups across the country have proposed similar concepts, including in Orange, Lee, Alachua, Brevard and Osceola counties.

Related: A Florida woman wants a turtle to be mayor of Clearwater. She’s not kidding.

People in Florida can file lawsuits to challenge environmental degradation, but they need to show how they are personally harmed. A person can have standing; a spring cannot. Critics say legislators weakened the current law last year when they approved making unsuccessful challengers in development disputes cover both parties’ legal fees.

Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican, said he became aware of Rights of Nature when the Florida Democratic Party adopted the policy as part of its official platform. Ingoglia is sponsoring the bill that would prohibit local governments from granting “any legal rights to a plant, an animal, a body of water, or any other part of the natural environment.”

"This will be chaos and will damage our tremendous economy,” Ingoglia told a House committee earlier this month. He warned of litigation costing cities and developers millions of dollars and inflating housing costs.

“There will be no such thing as affordable housing in these areas that have these amendments,” he said.

Ingoglia, a home builder and former chair of the Republican Party of Florida, asked legislators to imagine getting a construction permit and “someone sues you on behalf of the ant hill on the property.”

The representative said he heard rumblings about Rights of Nature from business leaders and that his personal interests had nothing to do with the legislation. Last week, Spring Hill residents opposed the rezoning of some land that could see residential development after being sold to Ingoglia’s company. It was previously slated for parks.

“You don’t need a good reason to fight bad policy other than it’s just bad policy,” Ingoglia said.

Related: Hernando planning commission says yes to 5 of 6 housing plans for state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia’s company

Some Democrats, flouting their own party’s platform, have agreed. Ingoglia’s legislation, the spirit of which is tucked into a bigger committee bill in the Senate, has glided through three House committees by a combined vote total of 39 to 3.

“We were disappointed to see Democratic legislators supporting these terrible bills in committees, though we understand that committees are a strange place for minority parties,” Janelle J. Christensen, president of Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida, said in a statement. Her group is trying to talk legislators into voting against the bill if it reaches the floor.

“In the United States, it is particularly important since corporations have been granted legal personhood but the lands and waters that we depend upon have not,” Christensen said.

Cypress knees are visible on the banks of the Santa Fe River. (Times 2016)

The bill is another example of Republican lawmakers seeking to pre-empt local government action, an approach that opponents say hamstrings municipalities’ ability to implement policies on everything from gun control to transportation.

Ingoglia has advocated passionately for pre-emption.

"We are stopping local cities and counties from doing something that will hurt business, the taxpayers, the tax base,” he told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Feb. 4. Under Gov. Ron DeSantis and the current Legislature, he said, Florida is already giving enough interest and funding to environmental preservation.

Rep. Rick Roth, a Loxahatchee Republican, said before voting to support the bill, “We’re having people move to Florida, bringing their businesses, doing great things and protecting the environment at the same time.” He added: “I don’t understand how fruits and vegetables can have standing. Fruits and vegetable growers can, but not fruits and vegetables.”

Backers of Rights of Nature say their opponents rely on hyperbole.

“Everybody tries to take the most insane examples that would never happen in real life, and show why that’s bad,” said Michael Roth, president of Our Santa Fe River, who is pushing for a charter amendment for a bill of rights in Alachua County.

Michael Roth likes to kayak on the Santa Fe River but said he has noticed the quality of water and vegetation diminish. Pollution and overuse are to blame, he said. Last year, his wife came down with a double ear infection after swimming.

To have a chance in court, he said, “the river needs to be able to complain.”

“It’s just saying that natural systems, in this case the Santa Fe River, have an inalienable right to exist and to flourish,” he said. “They don’t have any rights beyond that.”

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