Environmentalists file new legal action to force state to spend conservation money the way voters directed four years ago

algae bloom
John Moran photo

A coalition of environmental groups says Florida’s algae outbreaks and subsequent marine life die-offs are so severe that the Leon Circuit Court should immediately act to make sure Florida spends land conservation money the way voters directed it to four years ago. They filed a motion in court Wednesday to make that happen.

In 2014, 75 percent of voters approved Amendment 1, the Water and Land Conservation amendment, to the Florida Constitution. Under the amendment, the state was supposed to use proceeds from an existing tax on real estate transactions to buy and manage conservation lands. When the state environmental agencies started using the money for salaries, equipment, and other things besides buying land, conservationists sued. The state fought back, arguing that agencies have more latitude in the way they spend the money voters approved for conservation.

In June, Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled in the environmental groups’ favor. He said that the state must mend its ways and instead spend the money on conservation. He said he’d read the amendment over hundreds of times and the only conclusion was that the Water and Land Conservation amendment’s purpose was clear – “to create a trust fund to purchase new conservation lands and take care of them.”

Instead of abiding by the ruling, the state’s lawyers appealed. That appeal put a hold – or stay – on the judge’s ruling.

Wednesday, the environmental groups asked the court to lift the stay – and said one of the only ways to stop pollution from fueling toxic algae is to buy conservation land to prevent pollution and protect waterways.

If the stay is not lifted, the groups said in their motion, “the Legislature can continue to spend Land Acquisition Trust Fund moneys on agency operations and for other purposes instead of buying land to address the toxic algae emergency. Failure to vacate the automatic stay threatens irreparable harm to the citizens and the economy of Florida. “

The groups include the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the, St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and Florida Defenders of the Environment. The non-profit law firm Earthjustice is handling much of the litigation, along with attorneys David Guest and Joseph Little.

Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.

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