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Court Backs Florida Lawmakers In Conservation Fight

The St. Johns River.
The University of North Florida
The St. Johns River.

In a blow to environmental groups, an appeals court Monday overturned a circuit judge’s ruling that said state lawmakers improperly diverted money that flowed from a 2014 constitutional amendment designed to boost land and water conservation.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal found that Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson erred when he ruled that money from the amendment could only be used on land purchased after the voter-approved measure took effect.

Dodson’s ruling followed allegations by environmental groups that lawmakers had improperly used money from what is known as the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for other expenses, including agency expenses and salaries.

Related: Florida Lawmakers Chip Away At Land Preservation Money

The appeals court pointed to an “unsupportable reading” by Dodson of the amendment and held that the money is “not restricted to use on land purchased by the state after 2015.”

“While the trial court purported to construe the plain meaning of the constitutional text, that provision does not plainly restrict the use of LATF (trust fund) revenue to improvement, management, restoration, or enhancement of lands only acquired after 2015,” said the 13-page opinion, written by appeals-court Judge Ross Bilbrey and joined by judges Joseph Lewis and Scott Makar. “(A subsection of the amendment) authorizes LATF revenue to be used to finance the acquisition of land, water areas, easements and the like. The subsection also authorizes refinancing. That the text specifically authorizes refinancing suggests that property for which the state already owns title is within the purview of permissible LATF activities.”

The 2014 amendment, which was approved by 75 percent of voters, requires that 33 percent of revenues from a tax on real-estate documentary stamps go to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. The ballot summary of the amendment said, in part, that the money would be used to “acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites.”

Related: Amendment 1: The Price To Protect Florida’s Land And Water

Environmental groups filed two lawsuits, which were later consolidated, challenging the way lawmakers carried out the amendment during the 2015 legislative session. They argued that lawmakers had used the money as what one attorney described as a “slush fund” to cover environmental expenses.

Dodson last year sided with the groups and found that dozens of legislative budget appropriations were unconstitutional.

Related: St. Johns Riverkeeper, Others Sue Over Lack Of Florida Conservation Funding

“(The constitutional amendment) creates a trust fund that must be expended, if at all, to acquire conservation lands or other conservation property interests … that the state of Florida did not own on the effective date of that amendment and thereafter to improve manage, restore natural systems thereon and enhance public access or enjoyment on those conservation lands,” Dodson wrote.

A brief filed in December by attorneys for the Legislature said Dodson’s ruling declared unconstitutional 185 budget appropriations worth more than $420 million. The brief contended that Dodson “drastically curtails the expressly stated purposes” of the constitutional amendment.

“A broad range of conservation purposes that have properly been funded from the LATF --- including restoration of springs, beaches, and the Everglades --- are ineligible to receive those funds under the trial court’s reading,” the brief said.

Environmental groups involved in the case said they plan to continue their legal battle.

“The appeals court did not even suggest that Amendment 1 established an all-purpose environmental slush fund as argued by the state.  Instead, it held only that expenditures were not restricted to acquiring new conservation lands, and remanded for trial on whether the funds had been unconstitutionally expended,” said attorney David Guest, who, along with Earthjustice, represents the litigants.

“This narrow holding from the court of appeals puts us back where we were before our trial court hearing, but it does not rule on the fundamentals of conservation spending,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, whose organization was named in the 2015 lawsuit. “Florida needs this funding now more than ever, and we will continue to fight for it.”

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.
Brendan Rivers comes to WJCT News with years of experience reporting and hosting news for several stations in the Daytona Beach area.
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