Environmentalists in 6-year-old land-acquisition lawsuit fight to keep case alive

Environmentalists in 6-year-old land-acquisition lawsuit fight to keep case alive
by Laura Cassels at Florida Phoenix

The Florida Wildlife Federation and its allies in a six-year-old lawsuit to protect a constitutionally mandated land-acquisition program are pressing on, despite a judge’s ruling dismissing the case.

Earlier this week, they filed a motion for reconsideration of a recent ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge E. Layne Smith, siding with the Florida Legislature in its expenditure of funds that voters in a 2014 referendum said must be spent on acquisition of environmentally important land and bodies of water.

Amendment 1 has never been properly funded for those purchases, according to the lawsuit filed by Florida Wildlife Federation, Florida Defenders of the Environment, Sierra Club Inc., Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. Johns Riverkeeper and long-time Florida environmentalist Manley Fuller (the plaintiffs).

Judge Smith ruled that they took too long to bring their case to a resolution and that the funds in dispute have since been spent by state lawmakers.

“The record reflects plaintiffs did not prosecute this action with any urgency and the appropriations they are contesting have long since expired,” wrote Judge Smith, appointed in June by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The environmental groups firmly dispute those matters and are asking the judge to take a closer look at the extensive court record, which precedes his appointment to the circuit court.

“If this is the 633rd document we have filed, you can’t say with a straight face that we have been dragging our feet,” said David Guest, lead attorney for plaintiffs.

Guest and other attorneys for the environmental groups say it was attorneys for the Legislature who slow-walked proceedings for years, and they asked the judge to reconsider his ruling in light of evidence that there is some, if only a fraction, of the funds left in state coffers.

“In issuing its order deciding that the Plaintiffs have not aggressively tried to bring the case to conclusion, this court [Judge Smith] overlooked this unambiguous record of repeated unilateral continuances and other delaying tactics by the Defendants, all of which the Plaintiffs specifically objected to, and all of which this court allowed over those objections,” says the motion for reconsideration.

“Delaying tactics by the Legislature are impeding progress of the case, including repeatedly asserting automatic continuances,” the plaintiffs wrote in June. “For example, the Legislature agreed to [Florida Wildlife Federation’s] summary judgment hearing date in 2020 and then cancelled it four days before the hearing.”

The defendants include Senate President Wilton Simpson, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, heads of the departments of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, Environmental Protection, and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and various legislators. Their various attorneys have been granted postponements of hearings for various reasons, including Simpson’s and Sprowls’ roles in legislative proceedings.

Amendment 1 of 2014 was designed to earmark $1.6 billion annually from documentary stamp taxes on real estate transactions to purchase and manage environmentally sensitive lands in a “Land Acquisition Trust Fund.”

The plaintiffs demonstrated that lawmakers have never come close to complying and instead have diverted funding to loosely related matters, including the purchase of baseball caps for farmers, salaries for firefighting on private land, fees to participate in an art exhibit, costs of display booths at public events, and 100 percent of salaries of the Office of Information Technology in the Department of Environmental Protection.

Full story at Florida Phoenix

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