Appeals court ruling favorable to EAA reservoir plan

OKEECHOBEE — State funding for the Everglades Agricultural Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) project continues to go back and forth in the courts.

The most recent court ruling favored the state’s plan to use Amendment 1 funds for the project.

Article X, §28 of the Florida Constitution, commonly referred to as “Amendment One,” mandates that “33 percent of the revenues accrued from the excise tax on documents, after deducting costs of collection and enforcement, be paid into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF) for a period of 20 years from the effective date of the constitutional provision.”

In November 2014, Florida voters passed Amendment 1.

In June 2015, Earthjustice filed a suit in the Leon County Circuit Court on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, challenging how the funds would be used.

“The constitutional amendment is clear,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “A third of the tax on real estate deals is to be used to prevent every last inch of Florida land from getting chewed up by development. But most lawmakers are simply not listening. That’s why we have to go to court.”

In June 2018, Judge Charles Dodson ruled that the Land Acquisition Trust Fund can only be used for acquisition of new land and can only be used for improving land purchased after 2015.

That ruling created a problem for the EAA reservoir plan. The state land for the project was purchased long before 2015.

“That kills this reservoir, because that land we are going to construct this reservoir on was acquired decades ago,” explained then South Florida Water Management District General Counsel Brian Accardo at the Nov. 8, 2018, SFWMD governing board meeting.

Florida Senate Bill 10, which expedites construction of the EAA reservoir, calls for using $64 million a year from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for reservoir bonding of $800 million. The state is responsible for 50 percent of the funding for Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects. The EAA reservoir is a CERP project.

Attorneys for the legislature appealed the ruling, claiming Judge Dodson’s ruling “drastically curtails the expressly stated purposes” of Amendment 1.

In November 2019, the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with the Florida Legislature, overturning Judge Dodson’s ruling.

On Nov. 26, 2019, attorneys for the Florida Defenders of the Environment filed a brief asking the Florida Supreme Court to consider the case. Joseph Little, attorney for Florida Defenders of the Environment, wrote 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,” Mr. Little wrote. “In contrast, the state submits that its use of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund monies is not so limited and that authorizes it to expend LATF funds to manage conservation lands whenever acquired, wherever located and by whomever owned, including private persons.”

So far, the legal battle has not delayed the EAA reservoir and STA plans. State funding has continued during the appeal process.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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