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Panel Kills Controversial Environmental Proposal

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

After drawing widespread opposition from business and agriculture groups, a proposal to redefine legal standing for Floridians on environmental issues won’t go before voters in November.

The Judicial Committee of the Florida Constitution Revision Commissionon Friday unanimously rejected the proposal (P 23), filed by commission member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, with opponents saying it was too broad.

Thurlow-Lippisch, a former mayor of Sewall’s Point in Martin County, acknowledged after the meeting that while the proposal may be “a little extreme,” she will continue to work on improving it as a citizens’ initiative.

Under the proposal, “any person” would have a right to clean air and water, which includes the ability to “enforce this right against any party, public or private, subject to reasonable limitations, as provided by law.”

The “any person” language is what raised hackles of critics.

Commissioner Tom Lee, a Republican state senator from Thonotosassa, described the proposal as “a radical departure from a balance of rights that exists currently in our Constitution.”

“If I saw a way, in the four corners of this proposal, to adjust it in such (a way) that the commissioner could get to conceptually where she was trying to move the needle without creating an explosion of litigation in our state, in upturning rights that currently exist as vested in the jurisprudence in our procedural law, I would try to find a way to help you out here,” Lee said.  “I just can’t get there.”

Currently, people must show they are “substantially” affected to challenge state permits.

Former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, an attorney and commission member from Tampa, encouraged Thurlow-Lippisch to keep working on the proposal, which was inspired by students from the Treasure Coast.

“If there was a way that we could carve language out that would actually have some standards that could be measurable, and it would not be open to anyone’s definitions and standards, that’s the challenge,” said Joyner, a former Senate Democratic leader.

“I strongly believe that the citizens of the state of Florida need a more effective tool to safeguard our state’s beauty and our natural resources, but I don’t want to give anybody an open to ticket to sue,” Joyner said. “There is enough litigation in the state that is unnecessary.”

Thurlow-Lippisch said she hopes the students who first proposed the idea won’t give up on it.

“Sometimes you have to make extreme changes to have considerable benefits,” she said.

Thurlow-Lippisch was appointed to the 37-member commission by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

The Constitution Revision Commission meets every 20 years and can place proposed constitutional amendments directly on the 2018 ballot. Committees have been looking at dozens of proposals.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican running this year for agriculture commissioner, and former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard became the latest voices to oppose the proposal this week.

Grimsley, in a letter Thursday to Judicial Committee Chairman Bill Schifino, argued that the proposal “strikes at the heart of Florida farming and ranching communities” and would “unleash a no-holds-barred wave of interventionism and frivolous lawsuits that I know my own farming operation would be unable to fend off.”

Vinyard equated the proposal to “feel good” constitutional amendments in the past that have addressed issues such as pigs and high-speed trains and contended environmental-restoration efforts could be jeopardized by the proposed amendment.

“This proposed amendment gives a disgruntled homeowner not wanting to give up his or her septic tank another litigation avenue to block a new wastewater treatment system,” Vinyard wrote.

Thurlow-Lippisch has said she filed the proposal because the Constitution might appear friendly to the environment but often offers contradictory language that nullifies preservation efforts.

She noted on her blog that the proposal has raised environmental awareness and made the business and government community “look desperate to hold on to Florida's ‘standard environmental operating procedure’ that puts corporations and development before people.

After the meeting, Brewster Bevis, senior vice president of state and federal affairs for Associated Industries of Florida, commended the committee for stopping an “unnecessary proposal” that would have exposed “not only Florida businesses, but private citizens as well, to endless litigation and harmful uncertainty.”

“With the Judicial Committee’s vote today, Florida’s comprehensive, thoughtfully crafted environmental policy will remain intact, continuing to protect the rights of Floridians and provide much-needed regulatory certainty and stability for businesses moving forward,” Bevis said.