Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law an amendment to Florida’s Environmental Protection Act, SB 712, that in part prohibits local governments from granting individuals the right to sue on behalf of plants, animals, bodies or water or other elements of nature.
It reflected the sensible idea that it is individuals who are harmed by pollution and other environmental hazards who have the right to sue others who impose those environmental harms on them.
It may seem strange that such a law was required, but it was in response to an environmentalist-led movement in recent years urging local governments to grant “nature” legal rights independent and in opposition to people.
It has long been the case that nearly anyone can sue to enforce environmental laws when they are suffering an injury from others’ actions. For the environmentalist advocates, however, the point of environmental laws is not to make nature safe for people but to keep nature safe from people.
Last November, voters in Orange County ignored the state law, voting overwhelmingly to enact a local law granting waterways a right to sue in their own “defense” against purported environmental harms. Since waterways can’t talk or file legal briefs, the law allows others — including environmental organizations — to sue on behalf of waterways. This means that people who are not themselves injured by alleged environmental harms can nonetheless ask courts to stop any development they do not like.
The local law is likely to be a dead letter when courts ultimately rule that the referendum is impermissibly in conflict with SB 712, but environmental groups seem intent on pursuing powers given to them by the new law. One lawsuit has already been filed on behalf of the Wekiva River. It was quickly dismissed, but others have already been suggested. The situation has created a legal conflict that promises to cost the taxpayers plenty and casts uncertainty over homebuilding, infrastructure and other development projects until it is resolved.
Every year, thousands of people move to Central Florida. In fact, Central Florida will add roughly 1,500 people per week by 2030. Throw in the more than 70 million tourists who visit Orange County’s world-class theme parks and restaurants each year, and there is a tremendous need for continued development. Without it, you can bet that traffic and housing prices are about to turn from today’s bad dream into tomorrow’s nightmare.
Orange County desperately needs more affordable housing. It also needs better roads and infrastructure to keep up with the ever-increasing population — particularly along the State Road 408 interchange and Interstate 4 corridors. This development will never happen if people can sue the planners and developers on behalf of rivers to block improvements to the community. The local areas most in need of critical improvements are close enough to the Econlockhatchee and Wekiva Rivers that activists could claim injury to the rivers to file a lawsuit preventing any development.
How did this legal oddity garner 89% of votes in Orange County? The answer lies in the bland wording of the referendum itself. The language on the ballot, limited to a scant 75 words, suggested that giving rivers the right to sue would help end water pollution.
But those legal limitations — imposed by the state of Florida — meant that a voter couldn’t readily assess the costs, the conflict with state law or the fact that individuals, groups and government agencies already have the power to sue to stop bona fide environmental harms.
At a glance, there was no way a voter could fully understand how the law would empower environmentalist zealots to file suits anytime they claimed to speak for a river. And it’s not likely a time-pressed voter would fully grasp that the law’s first casualty will be the destruction of the private property rights of people who want to develop their land productively and responsibly.
Respect for individual rights does not tolerate environmental nuisances, and state law provides the tools necessary to protect people from harm and keep waterways clean. History shows that respect for private property rights, and the prosperity that attends it, also leads to a cleaner environment.
If we care about both people and the environment, we should not be discouraging development or allowing endless lawsuits by giving rivers the right to sue.
And maybe we should also write better ballot proposals.
This op-ed was originally published by The Orlando Sentinel on January 14, 2020.