Florida Justices Decline to Take Up Conservation Fight

Clint Thompson Florida

(NSF) – In a blow to environmentalists, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday refused to take up a dispute about how money can be spent under a 2014 constitutional amendment aimed at land and water conservation.

Spring wetland scene from central Florida.

The dispute centered on allegations by backers of the constitutional amendment that the Legislature improperly used money that was targeted for conservation purposes. But the 1st District Court of Appeal last year sided with lawmakers.

The Supreme Court, as is common, did not explain its reasons for declining to hear the case. But the decision effectively let stand the ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal. Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz were in the majority in Monday’s decision, while Justice Jorge Labarga supported taking up the case.

The constitutional amendment requires setting aside a portion of real-estate documentary stamp tax revenues in what is known as the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for conservation efforts. Environmentalists contend the money was supposed to go to buying and managing additional property and that the state improperly diverted money to other expenses.

But the appeals court, in deciding for the state, said a Leon County circuit judge erred when he ruled money from the amendment could only be used on land purchased after the measure took effect in 2015.

Florida Defenders of the Environment and individual plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court in November to take up the case, arguing that the appeals court’s interpretation “defeats the intent of the Florida voters who approved the amendment for inclusion in the Florida Constitution.”

“FDE (Florida Defenders of the Environment) submits that the only authorized purposes are to acquire new conservation and recreation lands and to restore and manage lands so-acquired,” Joseph Little, an attorney for the group, wrote in a brief. “In contrast, the state submits that its use of the LATF (Land Acquisition Trust Fund) monies is not so limited and that (the constitutional amendment) authorizes it to expend LATF funds to manage conservation lands whenever acquired, wherever located and by whomever owned, including private persons.”

But attorneys for the state House and Senate urged the Supreme Court to turn down the case, saying in a December brief that the 1st District Court of Appeal decision was “plainly correct.”

“Nothing in the text supports the FDE’s contention that restoration, management, and other non-acquisition activities authorized by (the constitutional amendment) are limited to land owned by the state and acquired since July 1, 2015,” the Legislature’s attorneys wrote. “The resources of the parties and of the (Supreme) Court need not be exhausted on further review of a contention that is scarcely colorable.”

The state took the case to the 1st District Court of Appeal after Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson in 2018 agreed with environmentalists and found that dozens of legislative budget appropriations were unconstitutional. But the Tallahassee-based appeals court said that while Dodson “purported to construe the plain meaning of the constitutional text, that provision does not plainly restrict the use of LATF revenue to improvement, management, restoration, or enhancement of lands only acquired after 2015.”

Source: News Service of Florida (NSF)