A controversial and groundbreaking environmental strategy to grant rights to nature has emerged in Orange County, where it is heading to the ballot in November as a proposed county charter amendment.
Wednesday night the Orange County Charter Review Commission voted to place on the county ballot a proposal known as the “Wekiva and Econlockhatchee Rivers Bill of Rights” that would declare those rivers have the rights to not be polluted. The amendment would authorize citizens or the county government to sue anyone, including corporations, for polluting them.
The proposal is part of a rising international strategy for environmentalists seeking to create a new way to protect natural features from pollution and degradation. In the United States, Pittsburgh and Toledo, Ohio, have passed similar laws, but Toledo’s was struck down just last week in a federal court in Ohio. Pittsburgh’s has to do with fracking and has not been challenged.
The proposed Orange County Charter amendment was sent to the November county ballot Wednesday night in a split vote of 9-5, following 11 public hearings.
“This is the first time a proposed ‘rights to nature’ has gotten on a county ballot anywhere in the country,” said Chuck O’Neal, one of the proponents.
In essence, the proposal intends to set up a new counterbalance between conservation and growth, and thereby would open up a new battlefront between environmental interests and development interests. Any new housing or business development that could be construed as potentially damaging to the Wekiva or Econlockhatchee rivers could be challenged and possibly blocked through a lawsuit.
The Wekiva River in western Orange and the Econlockhatchee River in eastern Orange are among the county’s most cherished natural resources.
Opponents included the Orange County Charter Review Commission Chair Camille Evans, who said she has many concerns, but chiefly, “Who is better served by it? Does it work? And it does not work.”
CRC Member Lee Steinhauer insisted that everyone is in favor of protecting the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers. But he warned that the amendment could give easy tools to anyone wishing to block any proposed new development anywhere near them, including proposals for affordable housing, which the county desperately needs.
Even the CRC General Counsel Clifford Shepard expressed some skepticism Wednesday that the proposed amendment could withstand legal challenges and become effective in protecting the rivers.
Yet proponents, including lawyer James Auffant and University of Central Florida biology professor John Fauth expressed confidence that the proposal has both the specificity and the science that had been lacking in the Toledo effort.
CRC Member Russell Drake argued that Florida [more specifically Orange County] “has the opportunity to do what Ohio couldn’t.
“We’re going to have to get it right. We’ve got the opportunity to get it right,” Drake said. “I understand it’s a unique thing and has not been done before. But we have a chance to break new ground and start a new trend.
“I am for growth. I am for expansion. But I am for life before that,” Drake continued. “The water doesn’t have rights anywhere else in our Constitution. So, we’re putting it in our charter.”
O’Neal, a prominent local environmentalist who is a leader of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, said his group is prepared to both defend the proposal from legal challenges and to spearhead a campaign for its adoption by Orange County voters in the fall.
Among more immediate challenges is an effort in the Florida Legislature to stop Orange County’s effort through a legislative preemption. Such a provision is included in Republican Sen. Debbie Mayfield‘s “Clean Waterways Act,” SB 712, which is on the special order calendar for Thursday.
“We have a legal task force that’s gearing up to fight the preemption. Our position is that the preemption is unconstitutional, and we’ll fight that in court to keep the WEBOR on the Orange County ballot,” O’Neal said.
He also said that he expects an opposition campaign in the fall, but noted they’ll be opposing a ballot measure with the title, “Prohibiting Pollution of the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee Rivers or Other Waters of Orange County.”
“Good luck opposing that,” O’Neal said sarcastically.