Ignoring Legislature, Central Florida voters say clean water is a right

November 12, 2020 7:00 am

The Econlockhatchee River flows through Osceola, Orange, and Seminole counties in Central Florida. Credit: Wikipedia.

Not a lot of people noticed it, but something pretty interesting happened in Florida during last week’s election.

No, I don’t mean the fact that the state most vulnerable to climate change somehow decided to cast more votes for the presidential candidate who has claimed climate change is a hoax (a claim lacking any evidence to back it up, not unlike his claims of a stolen election).

And I’m not talking about that one precinct at the University of Central Florida where the voter turnout exceeded 100 percent (it wasn’t fraud, just a quirk of having out-of-town college students voting).

No, what I am talking about was a ballot item in Orange County that was, on its face, fairly minor, yet also of such earth-shaking significance that the governor and Legislature have already taken steps to block it.

Nearly nine out of 10 voters in Orange County approved a change to their county’s charter that added a section declaring that humans have a right to clean water, and that natural features like rivers and lakes have the same legal rights as people.

“The measure, known as the ‘Right to Clean Water Initiative,’ is the first in Florida to recognize the rights of nature, and empowers any resident to enforce the rights of waterways and the rights of people to clean water,” the measure’s backers announced in a press release. Orange County “has become the largest municipality in the United States to adopt a ‘rights of nature’ law,” they declared.

What this means is that if one of the lakes or rivers in Orange County suffers from excess pollution, someone who’s concerned about this doesn’t have to sit around waiting for the state Department of Environmental Protection to take action. Instead, he or she can file suit against the polluters on behalf of the lake or the river, arguing that its right to be free of degradation has been violated.

A frustrated voter

This all started, as so many popular movements in Florida start these days, with a frustrated voter.

Wekiva River in Central Florida. Credit: Wikipedia.

Chuck O’Neal, who runs a residential investment company, heads up a Central Florida environmental group called Speak Up Wekiva. Over the years, he told me, their efforts to protect the Wekiva River and other waterways from pollution have run into repeated roadblocks.

“I got frustrated with the way special interests manipulate environmental regulations in Florida,” he said. The polluters always seemed to have the upper hand, and the people trying to stop them couldn’t win because of the way state and local government threw up obstacles at every turn, he said. “We’re basically handcuffed here at the local level when it comes to protecting our water supply.”

About a year and a half ago, he went to a two-day conference where one of the speakers was Thomas Linzey, senior legal counsel for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights. Linzey talked about a growing worldwide movement to grant human rights to natural features, such as springs and rivers and bays and oceans.

Ecuador, for instance, included the rights of nature in its most recent rewrite of its constitution, and Pittsburgh has a similar provision protecting its three rivers.

Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes in North America. Credit: Wikipedia.

Toledo, Ohio, passed a law last year granting rights to Lake Erie, which has been plagued with pollution-fueled algae blooms, but a federal judge said it was “unconstitutionally vague.” (An appeals court decision on a technical matter has kept it alive for now.)

To O’Neal, this approach made perfect sense. The Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United vs. FEC case granted corporations the same rights as a person to buy campaign ads. If corporations could have the same rights as humans, then why not nature, if only to level the playing field?

O’Neal invited Linzey to his house. There, along with some other environmental activists, they set to work drafting a proposed change to Orange County’s governing document, the county charter.

Goliath goes down hard

They were particularly focused on granting the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers “the right to exist and flourish and to maintain flow,” Linzey told me. “This amendment gives the power to every resident of Orange County to enforce it – it’s not up to the state or the county to do it,”

Once they were done, they took it to the county committee that reviews proposed charter changes, where it went through numerous hearings. Not everyone was a fan, with opposition arising from homebuilders and developers, he said. At last, though, the committee voted 9-4 to put it on the ballot, with the four votes all coming from people representing development interests, Linzey said.

One of the people involved in drafting the document was an environmental lawyer named Nicole Wilson. She decided to mount a long-shot campaign for county commissioner with a platform based on backing the “Rights of Nature” amendment.

The incumbent commissioner, Betsy VanderLey, was backed by the development industry. That Goliath had lots of company. Sugar companies, big utilities and even theme parks spent money on attack ads targeting Wilson, calling her “a radical lawyer” for supporting the measure, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Her opponents pulled other dirty tricks, too, to the point that Wilson said, “I felt like I was in a Carl Hiaasen novel.”

But a funny thing happened when the voters went to the polls in August: All the Goliaths opposing Wilson took a shot to the head and went down hard. The voters ousted VanderLey by a margin of 57 percent to 42 percent. They preferred Wilson’s message about the need for clean water and clean air.

“It really resounded with people throughout the district,” Wilson told me this week. When she talked to voters, “people came out of the woodwork with their concerns and their fears about pollution.”

Development good, protecting nature bad

In the meantime, though, Florida legislators were also mobilizing to stop the “rights of nature” forces mobilizing in Orange and other parts of the state. Their weapon was a bill that would ban local governments from granting “any legal rights to a plant, an animal, a body of water, or any other part of the natural environment.”

Florida State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia. Credit: Florida House of Representatives.

Leading the charge: state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a homebuilder from Spring Hill. Ingoglia gained some fame in GOP circles by producing a series of videos called “Government Gone Wild.” Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like prodding his fellow legislators to bigfoot local voters counts as a prime example of state government gone wild.

There’s been a lot of that lately, as the Legislature blocked Key West from banning a type of sunscreen that might hurt coral reefs and effectively nullified Tampa’s tree protection ordinance.

I called Ingoglia at both his legislative office and his homebuilding office to ask him about why he thought protecting Florida’s nature was a bad idea. He was apparently too busy tweeting about the Florida Gators beating the Georgia Bulldogs to return my calls. But in a committee hearing back in February, he presented this closely reasoned argument for blocking any local government from approving a “Rights of Nature” measure:

“We are stopping local cities and counties from doing something that will hurt business, the taxpayers, the tax base.” In other words, development is good for you, and anything that stands in its way is bad.

Ingoglia also contended that Gov. Ron DeSantis – you know, the guy who wants to build three expensive new toll roads that would destroy habitat for panthers and other wildlife – was already doing enough to help the environment and so there was no need to do more.

Ingoglia’s bill failed, but he managed to slide the language into a Senate bill that, ironically, was supposed to help fix Florida’s water pollution woes (although environmental groups said it was so weak it actually made things worse). DeSantis, that champion of Florida’s environment, signed it into law.

Somehow Orange County’s voters didn’t get the memo about how protecting nature was bad for business. A big part of that was the provision guaranteeing that the citizens have the right to clean water, O’Neal said. Who could oppose that? Even the local Chamber of Commerce discovered a majority of its members supported it.

That part of the measure helped people grasp what it was all about, Wilson said. “Explaining the rights of nature sounds very woo-woo,” she told me. “But what it’s really about is protecting our own environment.”

The measure passed with support from more than 89 percent of the voters. That means it was far more popular than any of the politicians on the same ballot. It drew support from people in both parties and independents as well.

“Florida can’t seem to agree on anything else, but clean water seems to be the exception,” Linzey told me.

O’Neal said he’s heard from people in 14 other counties who are interested in pursuing similar changes to their local government set-up. In spite of Ingoglia’s best efforts, they plan to proceed as if the charter amendment was the law of the land.

“Until there’s a court (ruling) that throws it out, it’s on the books,” Wilson said. “It’s a voter mandate that should put everybody in Tallahassee on alert.”

Maybe what happened in Orange County will make legislators like Ingoglia pay attention to how popular this movement has become.

I have to say, though, that in my experience, choosing the environment over what their big campaign contributors want just isn’t in their nature.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.