NE Fla. Environmentalists: Court Ruling Changes Julington-Durbin Creek Preserve Debate

The conservation community has been fighting since 2015 against what they say is  the state legislature’s repeated misuse of the amendment funding, which was intended by voters to acquire and restore conservation lands.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson ruled the state failed to follow the will of the voters when it refused to acquire and restore conservation lands on Friday.

Jim McCarthy, President of the North Florida Land Trust, and Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director of Florida Conservation Voters talked about the judge's decision on Monday’s First Coast Connect.

“They took the money and sent it elsewhere. In plan simple language, they misappropriated money,” McCarthy said, referring to state lawmakers.

According to Moncrief, the circuit court judge recognized the Legislature was wrong when they spent Amendment 1 funds on existing operating expenses instead of new parks, restoration and protecting conservation lands.

Voters passed Amendment 1 in 2014 with a 75 percent approval and the judge felt that the case didn’t need to go to trial, because what the voters intended was clear.

According to Moncrief, “[Judge Dodson] he’s read the amendment more than 100 times and it was very obvious that the money was to be spend on and acquisition. That will obviously go up to the [Fla.] Supreme Court, so we will see what they will have to say.”

Recently, a local developer has raised eyebrows when talking about a land swap between Black Hammock Island and Julington-Durbin Creek Preserve.

“You have very different eco systems, very different benefits, so it's not one or the other. It shouldn't be that choice. It really should be both from a preservation standpoint,” said McCarthy.

Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, called the ruling a “clear abuse of judicial authority,” adding, “We are confident it will be overturned on appeal.”

David Guest, a lawyer representing the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the Sierra Club and Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller, called Dodson’s Friday bench ruling a “100 percent victory.” He added, “The people of Florida voted with a firm, clear voice. And the court said today that counts.”

Guest said after the hearing, “The Legislature has to comply with the law like everybody else.”

Since the passage of the amendment, legislators each year have directed at least $200 million to the Everglades, $64 million to a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, $50 million to natural springs and $5 million to Lake Apopka.

In the budget year that begins July 1, $100 million from the trust fund will go towards the Florida Forever land acquisition program, which has been unfunded in past years. At least $160 million will be spent on agency overhead.

Joe Little, who represents the Florida Defenders of the Environment, told Dodson that the measure is “clearly” focused on conserving lands purchased after the amendment went into law.