Rights of Nature in Orange County

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Kristin for safebor In: Rights of Nature in Orange County | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida
OSFR board member Kristin Rubin collects petitions in order to get an amendment on the Alachua County Charter giving the Santa Fe River the right to exist. Photo by Jim Tatum

 

Looking toward the light that is the leadership of Orange County we are happy to see that new charter amendments include the all important rights of nature, specifically the waterways of Orange County.
We recall the efforts in Alachua County where the concept did not even pass the charter review commission, in spite of efforts by Santa Fe River Bill of Rights (SAFEBOR) in which two OSFR board members played key parts and others did volunteer work.
As expected, the concept encountered strong opposition, especially from agriculture, which cited all the protections already “enjoyed” by the rivers but which, if anyone who looks around just a tiny bit will see that these misnamed-“protections” certainly  are not working because our rivers and springs are dying and becoming stagnant pools of toxic algae.

Endorsements: Three Orange County charter amendments deserve three yes votes

 

 

Orange County’s Charter Review Commission meets every four years to deliberate changes to the document that guides how the county is governed. This time around, the commission came up with three proposed charter changes, which are on the general election ballot.

Here are the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board recommendations:

Question No. 1: Yes

Considering the dismal condition of waterways throughout Florida, it’s hard to argue that state and local authorities have done enough to protect them.

Deteriorating water quality conditions in Central Florida were the driving force behind this charter amendment, which relies on an emerging legal concept called “rights of nature.” Not surprisingly, opponents conjure up images of rivers strolling into courthouses to sue for their rights.

Wrong. The charter amendment would give people — not water bodies — the right to bring lawsuits to protect natural features, like the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers. The law currently requires someone who bring suit to show they’re personally harmed. Under this charter change, a greater number of people could sue on behalf of a river or lake to stop pollution and the harm it does to natural resources that belong to everyone.

And that’s what this charter amendment was aimed at doing — halting government and corporate pollution of waterways in Orange County.

That sounds like an admirable goal that’s worthy of the litigation that might result.

Sadly for voters, this charter amendment likely won’t do what was intended, thanks to the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Lawmakers earlier this year passed a bill called “The Clean Waterways Act,” which included a provision banning local governments from establishing the kind of natural rights clauses on Orange County’s ballot.

The bill is being challenged in federal court. But unless it’s overturned, this question is little more than a straw vote. Still, it gives Orange County voters an opportunity to tell Tallahassee and county commissioners how important clean water is to them. That’s reason enough to vote yes.

Question No. 2: Yes

Orange County commissioners last year were presented with a rotten choice courtesy of Osceola County, which approved huge development plans that necessitated extending the Osceola Parkway east. One plan had the highway plowing straight through the heart of the preservation area called Split Oak Forest.

Transportation officials came up with a compromise to take the road extension south so it would slice off just one corner of the forest. Plus, landowners offered to add another 1,500 acres to the forest. It was do that deal or plow down a bunch of homes.

Orange commissioners were in a box, and voted to approve the deal. We supported it at the time, though reluctantly.

This charter question, aimed specifically at Split Oak, would prevent the county from doing further harm to the forest. Considering how badly the road plan went over with the public, that seems unlikely. But who can blame Orange County voters for not wanting to take that chance?

The question would have had more appeal to us if it had been broadened to capture other public lands in Orange County to ensure no more preservation deals were undone. It also might have consequences to the road deal if the state, which also has to sign off on the Osceola Parkway plan, asks for changes.

It should never have come to this. Growth management at the state level used to force local officials to address road issues like this before it was too late. But the state gave up its role in growth management, leaving decision-making to sometimes irresponsible locals.

This charter question is an imperfect answer to an imperfect decision, but we think voters should support it to ensure Split Oak Forest isn’t put into danger again.

Question No. 3: Yes

Like a lot of charter amendments, this one is a housekeeping item. But unlike a lot of charter amendments, this one has consequences for Orange County voters.

This question affects the ability of county residents to change the charter through a petition initiative. The way things stand, backers of a charter change have 180 days — about six months — to gather the number of signatures needed to get a question on the ballot. As of now, that’s nearly 90,000 signatures.

The problem is, petition gathering has to stop while the county performs a legal review and financial analysis, but the 180-day clock keeps winding down, depriving petition gatherers of time.

This amendment simply stops the clock while those reviews are underway, ensuring that backers of an initiative have the full 180 days.

That should seem fair to any reasonable person, which is why this question is an easy yes for voters.

Election endorsements are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board, which consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio, Jay Reddick, David Whitley and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Sentinel Columnist Scott Maxwell participates in interviews and deliberations. Send emails to [email protected]. Watch candidates interviews at OrlandoSentinel.com/interviews.

 

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