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Fla. Supreme Court Could Decide Rules for Land-Buy Amendment

Five years ago, Fla. voters passed a constitutional amendment directing the state to spend doc stamp money on land worthy of protection. But it’s unclear if 100% of the funds must be used for land acquisition, so environmentalists asked the state’s highest court to weigh in.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Five years after Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment aimed at land and water conservation, environmentalists on Monday urged the state Supreme Court to wade into a battle about how the money can be spent. At this point in the case, the state has not filed a brief about whether it thinks the Supreme Court should take up the dispute.

Florida Defenders of the Environment and other plaintiffs filed a brief asking justices to decide a long-running dispute that centers on how state lawmakers carried out the 2014 constitutional amendment. The environmentalists took the case to the Supreme Court after the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with lawmakers in September.

Under the amendment, a portion of real-estate documentary stamp tax revenues was to be set aside in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and used for conservation efforts. Environmentalists contend the money was supposed to go to buying and managing additional property and that the state improperly diverted money to other expenses. But the appeals court, in deciding for the state, said a Leon County circuit judge erred when he ruled money from the amendment could only be used on land purchases after the measure took effect.

In the brief Monday, Joseph Little, an attorney for Florida Defenders of the Environment, argued 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,” Little wrote. “In contrast, the state submits that its use of the LATF (Land Acquisition Trust Fund) monies is not so limited and that (the constitutional amendment) authorizes it to expend LATF funds to manage conservation lands whenever acquired, wherever located and by whomever owned, including private persons.”

The state went to the 1st District Court of Appeal after Circuit Judge Charles Dodson last year agreed with environmentalists and found that dozens of legislative budget appropriations were unconstitutional.

In a brief filed at the appeals court, attorneys for the Legislature said Dodson’s ruling “drastically curtails the expressly stated purposes” of the constitutional amendment.

“A broad range of conservation purposes that have properly been funded from the LATF – including restoration of springs, beaches, and the Everglades – are ineligible to receive those funds under the trial court’s reading,” the Legislature’s attorneys wrote.

While the appeals court agreed with the Legislature, Little argued in Monday’s brief that the Supreme Court needs to resolve the meaning of the constitutional amendment.

“In short, the district court’s decision places no restrictions on the state’s power to expend LATF funds virtually as it pleases and does not require it to acquire and restore any new conservation lands,” he wrote. “FDE respectfully submits that this decision requires clarification by this (Supreme) Court not only for this case but for all other voter-initiated amendments to the Florida Constitution.”

Source: News Service of Florida, Jim Saunders