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Florida advocacy group says environmental law hurts its chance to save nature

It is suing over the Clean Waterways Act, which blocks efforts to grant legal rights to nature.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the year’s signature environmental bill into law last month, a cadre of activists said he might have effectively killed their movement just as they were gaining a toehold.

Folded into the Clean Waterways Act are lines blocking local governments from giving legal rights to parts of nature such as rivers, springs and forests. A proposal like that is already set to be voted upon by residents of Orange County this fall. Unless something changes between now and November, they will cast ballots on a charter amendment that would, with a majority, be illegal as soon as it passes.

“This is really our last chance to save our rivers, our lakes, our ocean,” said Chuck O’Neal, director of Speak Up Wekiva, the group behind the effort to “create natural rights for the waters of Orange County,” including the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers.

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

The organization is suing the governor and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein in Leon County, after a judge challenged a previous case against DeSantis in federal court, saying it was not the right venue and the governor was likely immune from the suit under established legal doctrine. Speak Up Wekiva’s last-ditch argument hinges on the idea that preemption infringes upon citizens’ ability to self-govern.

“Our entire country going back to the Declaration of Independence and even before that was based on the right of democracy and local self-government,” said the group’s lawyer, Steven Myers. The suit also contends the law is overly vague.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection said the agency had not been served with the lawsuit Wednesday and does not comment on pending litigation.

Proponents of rights of nature say the concept sounds stranger at first than it really is. The fundamental belief is that the environment should have a right to exist. Practically, advocates say, it means a person could bring a lawsuit based on evidence that a natural body like a river is hurt, not just that their own personal enjoyment or profit is diminished. It would give nature its own legal standing. They say requiring people to show personal harm is a hurdle to fighting the impact of pollution in court.

Opponents foresee the policy stalling Florida’s economy under the threat of frivolous lawsuits. Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican and homebuilder, sponsored the preemption. He told his colleagues the state already regulates the environment and said future development could be at stake, urging them to imagine building and “someone sues you on behalf of the ant hill on the property.” Advocates have said they would support checks in the law to discourage bogus claims.

A view of the Wekiva River. [ Times (2001) ]

The rights of nature movement was seeing some traction. A group was interested in a bill of rights for the Santa Fe River in Alachua County. Elizabeth Drayer ran for Clearwater mayor with the name “Sea Turtle” to bring awareness to natural rights. Drayer said she believes the environment should have representation in government.

She won nearly a quarter of the vote but did not win the race.

“A lot of new ideas start out this way. People laugh about them, they discount them,” Drayer said. “I was shocked by the amount of support that I got, to be frank. I did not expect people to understand this idea initially.”

About the same time she was campaigning, though, legislators in Tallahassee were looking to block the nascent movement.

Ingoglia’s bill fizzled as the meat of it was added to the Clean Waterways Act sponsored by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican. That law was meant to take up recommendations of the state blue-green algae task force — charged with limiting toxic blooms in Florida’s water supply.

An aide to Mayfield did not respond to two emails asking why rights of nature became a part of the Clean Waterways Act. In a statement, the senator wrote that it is “the most comprehensive piece of environmental protection legislation in recent history” and she is “confident the statute will be upheld in its entirety.”

Among the highlights are moving oversight of septic systems from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection, updating stormwater design requirements and outlining the process to track fertilizer use by agricultural companies.

“My Senate colleagues and I are committed to protecting Florida’s unique natural environment and the quality of life we as Floridians enjoy for generations to come,” Mayfield wrote.

A number of environmentalists say the law is hollow and reinforces a soft touch on pollution. The Clean Waterways Act passed unanimously. The prohibition on rights of nature directly conflicted with the Florida Democratic Party’s platform.

The preemption was supported in meetings by business groups like the Florida Home Builders Association and Associated Industries of Florida. The Florida Farm Bureau Federation gave Ingoglia one of its legislators of the year awards, citing the bill. The other award went to Mayfield, who the group noted was author to its priority legislation and “at every turn ... listened to our input and stood up for sound scientific solutions.”

The Farm Bureau did not provide comment for this story after a call and multiple emails.

In Orange, Bill Cowles, the local supervisor of elections, said the rights of nature question “will remain on the ballot until a court orders (him) to remove it or not to count the votes.”

O’Neal, of Speak Up Wekiva, said either way it will serve as a test case — of what could be or what could have been. “The other 66 counties in the state can watch and see what happens here,” he said.

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