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Rivers And Creeks Are Plaintiffs In Rights Of Nature Lawsuit That Could Foil 1,900-Acre Development

Two creeks, a marsh and two lakes in Florida are the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that aims to stop a mixed-use development on 1,923 acres in Greater Orlando.

In November, voters in Orange County passed a charter amendment granting legal rights to nature. Eighty-nine percent of voters supported it. The law secures the rights of waterways to “exist, flow, be protected against pollution and maintain a healthy ecosystem.” It allows municipalities or citizens to file enforcement actions on their behalf.

According to, the idea that rivers or forests have rights stems from a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision, and it has been gaining traction around the world. The Orange County lawsuit, filed April 26 in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, is the first-ever rights of nature enforcement case in the United States and is expected to serve as an important test case. 

A paddler on Central Florida's Wekiva River.

The defendants are the Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and a developer, Beachline South Residential LLC, which plans to build the Meridian Parks Remainder, a mixed-use project. The developer proposes filling in about 115 acres.

Charles "Chuck" O’Neal, president of the conservation group Speak Up Wekiva, brought the lawsuit on behalf of the wetlands called Wilde Cypress Branch, Boggy Branch, Crosby Island Marsh, Lake Hart and Lake Mary Jane.

A national group called the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, which helped craft the Orange County law and has also declared rights for the moon, alleged in a statement that the development "will destroy over 63 acres of wetlands and more than 33 acres of streams, for residential and commercial development. It also proposes to destroy over 18 acres of wetlands to build stormwater detention ponds. If allowed to proceed, the development would eliminate and restrict the sufficient flow of clean water through the wetlands into the protected waterways, thus violating the legal rights of those waterways."

"This lawsuit poses the question of whether the interests of one development corporation should outweigh the interests of over half a million Orange County voters and the existence of streams, marshes, lakes, and wetlands important to the region. The plaintiff-waterways represented in this action deserve more than just their day in court — they need to have even their most basic right to exist protected. For too long our legislators have told the public we need balance between commerce and Nature, and then folded to pressure from commerce to permit egregious exploitation," O'Neal said in a statement.

The lawsuit asks that the court stop construction and enjoin the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from issuing a dredge and fill permit to the developer. 

Florida Politics reported that in 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the legislature created a state law designed to pre-empt local rights of nature laws like Orlando's.