Circuit judge: Conservation land challenge moot as lawmakers have already allocated the money

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

A Leon County circuit court judge Monday issued an order that sides with state lawmakers over a challenge to the way legislators have allotted billions of dollars over the past seven years. 

Environmental groups like the Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club say state lawmakers misappropriated money under the Constitutionally mandated Legislative Acquisition Trust Fund, which came from an amendment that garnered more than 75% support in 2014. 

"Where is the justice for the Florida voters," said Cris Costello, with the Sierra Club. "I think the Legislatures since 2015 have just decided that they're not going to follow the Constitution on this."

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The trust fund sets aside one-third of documentary stamp tax revenues for land conservation and preservation under the Florida Forever program. 

Costello and others argue that the money, which will tally more than $1 billion in stamp revenues this year, should only go to land purchases and conservation. 

Members of environmental groups and others including ranchers held a press conference Friday Dec. 13, 2019 at Prairie Pine Preserve in North Fort Myers to urge legislators to fully fund Florida Forever.

Instead, she said, some of that money was used to buy things like computer equipment, hats for farmers, and to offset staff salaries and overtime. 

"We're going to challenge the order," Costello said. "There's no way we're going to let this order stand." 

Circuit Court Judge Layne Smith's order says the case is moot because the lawmakers  have already voted to allocate money, and that the case "no longer present(s) an actual case in controversy." 

A trial judge in 2018 sided with the environmental groups in the case, but Smith said the challenge is no longer viable. 

Since the money has been spent, there's nothing controversial, the order says. The timeframe for challenging those votes has long since expired, it continues. 

Costello said that premise is wrong because money is still being collected and spent by the state. 

The voter-mandated land trust has a lifespan of 20 years and is set to expire in 2035. 

"It's absurd because it's so far from factual that it's almost frightening," Costello said. "To say it's moot is to say it's no longer a controversy, that it's done. But it's not."

Costello said the land trust amendment was clear, and that voters knew they were voting to allocate money to land conservation, not staff pay or computer equipment.

"Those funds were (supposed to be) dedicated in every session for conservation land purchases," she said. 

In a press release the group said: "The 2014 constitutional amendment would never have been drafted or adopted if the Legislature had not stopped acquiring desperately needed conservation land, thereby frustrating the public into supporting it. Now the same Legislature is frustrating the same public by ignoring the constitutional amendment."  

Preston Roberts, with the Florida Wildlife Federation, said regardless of the section the court considered to be moot, the will of the Florida voters is not being executed. 

"I could not disagree more with the decision that the judge made in this case, whether the issue is moot or not," Roberts said. "Seventy-five percent of the people of the state amended their own constitution, and the agencies are misspending monies that were involved with this constitutional amendment." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.