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Judge strikes down 'rights of nature' charter amendment

Narrow river at a bend and wild grass on its banks
Amy Green/WMFE
/
The Kissimmee River

This and similar amendments being considered in local communities in Florida and across the country are aimed at protecting wetlands and waterways and preventing hunting of iconic species.

A judge has struck down an Orange County charter amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2020 that was aimed at protecting the rights of nature.
The amendment had spawned a lawsuit designed to block a housing development in fragile wetlands. The suit claimed the development would violate the wetlands’ right to flow freely.

But Judge Paetra Brownlee dismissed the suit, reasoning the charter amendment was preempted by state law. The 2020 Clean Waters Act, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 30, 2020, includes a provision that bans "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 brought 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 by nearly 90 percent a charter amendment aimed at protecting the “rights of nature.” This and similar amendments being considered in local communities in Florida and across the country are aimed at protecting wetlands and waterways and preventing hunting of iconic species. They also would prohibit captive hunting and toll roads through conservation and rural lands.

In 2021, O'Neal and other environmentalists attempted to get similar amendments to voters for addition to the Florida Constitution. According to Inside Climate News, this lawsuit in Orange County could be one of the "most consequential legal moment to date for the rights of nature movement in the U.S. legal system."

O’Neal says his group is considering options, including whether to appeal the judge’s decision. 

Information from WUSF's Steve Newborn and reporting by Mary Shedden was used in this report.

Copyright 2022 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

Amy Green