Local developer sued for allegedly violating the ‘rights’ of water. It may have a major impact on Florida development.

 

 

 

safebor millhopper meeting.7449 1 In: Local developer sued for allegedly violating the 'rights' of water. It may have a major impact on Florida development. | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida
OSFR board member Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson addresses the crowd at a Millhopper SAFEBOR meeting August 23, 2019.  Photo by Jim Tatum.

A landmark lawsuit is under way in Orange County, as explained below.  The trend lately has been that Tallahassee is trying to assume control of the state, pre-empting local rule by counties and municipalities.  Orange County has spoken and has frightened developers and agriculture out of their wits.  Should the “rights of nature” prevail as in the Orange County Charter, indeed we will see some scurrying, choking and screaming  by polluters and excessive water users.

OSFR is cheering from the sidelines with guarded optimism.  It is a sad fact that the Florida courts usually side with the polluters and water users, but here the stakes are huge with the potential of saving our water treasures in Florida.

OSFR has had experience with this concept before, indeed two of our  board members were instrumental in the founding of SAFEBOR, a group to protect the Santa Fe River. The attempt did not bear fruit in Alachua County, but likely the effort would be recharged should Orange County prevail.

Sorry, no link could be provided to this article which appeared in the Orlando Business Journal April 28, 2021.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
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– A river is like a life: once taken,
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Local developer sued for allegedly violating the ‘rights’ of water. It may have a major impact on Florida development.

By Jack Witthaus and Alex Soderstrom  –  Orlando Business Journal
Apr 27, 2021 Updated Apr 28, 2021, 8:44am EDT

A developer in Orange County has been sued in state court for allegedly violating a local charter involving the rights of water in a case that will have a major impact on development in the state of Florida, legal experts say.

Chuck O’Neal, president of conservation organization Speak Up Wekiva, filed the complaint on April 26 against developer Beachline South Residential LLC and Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, to stop a proposed mixed-use residential and commercial project, according to court documents. Florida Department of Environmental Protection Communications Director Dee Ann Miller said the department is unable to comment on pending litigation.

Beachline South Residential seeks to build partially on wetlands for the project, called Meridian Parks Remainder, on 1,923 acres south of State Road 528 and east of State Road 417, according to a permit filed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

State records show the development entity’s principal address is the same as the Orlando office of Canadian builder Mattamy Homes Corp., and its manager is Land Innovations LLC, an entity related to Palm Beach Gardens developer Jay Thompson. Thompson could not be reached for comment.

In 2017, Mattamy Homes announced it made a “significant investment” in developer Beachline South Residential, which at the time was developing the 2,600-acre Starwood community, later called Meridian Parks. State documents show the Meridian Parks Remainder project overlaps with where Mattamy is building Meridian Parks in southeast Orlando. A representative with Mattamy Homes wasn’t available for comment.

O’Neal’s attorney, Meyers & Stanley’s Steve Michael Meyers, wasn’t available for comment. However, O’Neal, a longtime environmental activist, told OBJ he filed the lawsuit after learning about the development and talking with biologists and other experts on how the construction of Meridian Parks Remainder may hurt the surrounding environment. Wetlands are critical to nature and have been compared to rain forests and coral reefs in terms of their ecological importance. For example, wetlands can purify waters by removing pollutants.

“If these wetlands are destroyed, we’re going to end up paying to clean this water,” O’Neal said.

The backstory

The lawsuit alleges the Meridian Parks Remainder development would violate an Orange County charter passed in November 2020 that allows waterways to “exist, flow, be protected against pollution and maintain a healthy ecosystem,” according to the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights. In addition, the law allows residents to sue polluters in court without having to show they personally were harmed. At the time, Orange County was the largest U.S. jurisdiction to pass this kind of law.

That said, the lawsuit and the charter will butt heads in court with a state law passed in July 2020 called the “Clean Waterways Act,” which preempted local jurisdictions to grant nature rights.

Impacts to development

It remains to be seen what will happen in this court battle. However, the lawsuit itself will have a chilling effect on development in Orange County, experts say. It also may drive up the costs to development in Orange County if residents can sue developers citing this charter.

Further, if the charter holds up in court, the lawsuit likely will result in other Florida counties seeking to pass similar laws, say legal and real estate experts.

“What happens here will be watched all over the state,” said Lee Steinhauer, government and legal affairs director for the Greater Orlando Builders Association.

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