A judge has struck down an amendment to the Orange County charter overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2020 that sought to protect the rights of nature.
The amendment had spawned a lawsuit seeking to block a housing estate in fragile wetlands. The lawsuit claimed that the development would violate the wetlands’ right to move freely.
But Judge Paetra Brownlee dismissed the suit, ruling that the charter amendment was preempted by state law. The Clean Waters Act of 2020, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis on June 30, 2020, includes a provision that prohibits “local governments from recognizing or granting certain legal rights to the natural environment or granting such rights relating to the natural environment to a person or political subdivision”.
Chuck O’Neal of the Florida Rights of Nature Network and Speak Up Wekiva filed the lawsuit.
“It’s a realization that our power to govern ourselves locally has been taken away from us,” he said.
In 2020, Orange County voters approved nearly 90% of a charter amendment aimed at protecting the “rights of nature.” This amendment and others like it being considered in local communities in Florida and across the country are intended to protect wetlands and waterways and prevent hunting of iconic species. They would also ban captive hunting and toll roads through conservation lands and rural lands.
In 2021, O’Neal and other environmentalists attempted to get similar amendments from voters to add to the Florida Constitution. According to Inside Climate News, this lawsuit in Orange County could be one of the “most important legal moments yet for the nature rights movement in the American legal system.”
O’Neal says his group is considering options, including whether to appeal the judge’s ruling.
Information from WUSF’s Steve Newborn and reporting from Mary Shedden were used in this report.
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