Environmentalists around the state cheered today when Florida Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled in favor of organizations that had sued to require the state to use funds earmarked for land acquisition, restoration and management of those lands under the terms of the Water and Land Conservation Amendment.
In 2015, nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice wrote, "The Water and Land Conservation Amendment requires that, for the next 20 years, 33 percent of the proceeds from real estate documentary-stamp taxes go for land acquisition. For the upcoming year, the share of the real-estate tax is projected to bring in more than $740 million."
In the unsurprising, if disheartening, tradition of Floridian lawmakers (medical marijuana, anyone?), since the amendment passed overwhelmingly with 75 percent of the vote in 2014, the legislature has continued dipping into the money pot for other uses, such as staffing and overhead costs, which many viewed as contrary to the intent of voters.
Consequently, Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of environmental organizations—including the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Florida Defenders of the Environment, and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida—to force the state to comply with their view of the terms of the amendment.
Today, they have a win.
"Protection of Florida's lands is critical to protecting Florida's waters," said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman in a release. "Today's ruling is a stunning victory for our state's wild places, rivers, springs, residents and future generations."
It is likely the matter is headed to the appellate court. Calling the verdict "a clear abuse of judicial authority," Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Pasco County) told the Orlando Sentinel that they "are confident it will be overturned on appeal."
Nevertheless, plaintiffs and other environmentalists are celebratory today. In a separate release, the North Florida Land Trust cheered the ruling. "I have been talking to groups, legislators and frankly, anyone who will listen for the last three years about how this funding was being used improperly," said Jim McCarthy, president of NFLT. "It was meant to fund our state's conservation programs, but instead went to pay for things like staff salaries at four different agencies, trucks, and insurance policies to protect employees in civil rights suits, which is not what the voters had in mind. I am thankful Judge Dodson ruled in favor of the voters' intentions and in favor of the preservation of our state's natural resources."
"Judge Dodson ruled today that the amendment funds are to be used for new land acquisition management and restoration from the Everglades to the Florida Panhandle!" said fellow plaintiff Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, according to a release. "This is what the voters of Florida intended in 2014. The sun was shining in Florida today."