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Rights of Nature lawsuit pits 2 lakes, 2 creeks and marsh against developer in Lake Nona

An unusual lawsuit sets up a courtroom showdown between local and state authorities over the untested legal idea that nature has inalienable rights to exist and flourish.

Wielding for the first time the voter-approved Orange County charter amendment intended to protect county waterways, environmentalists recently sued to stop a developer from filling in 115 acres of wetlands for a mammoth project near Lake Nona.

The lawsuit filed in circuit court was unusual because the plaintiffs include two lakes, two creeks and a marsh. The case sets up a courtroom showdown between environmental groups and business interests over the legal idea that nature has inalienable rights to exist and flourish, a concept upheld in some foreign countries but as yet untested in U.S. courts.

The lawsuit, which also lists environmental activist Chuck O’Neal and “other affected Orange County waters” as plaintiffs, asks a judge to block the state from issuing dredge and fill permits to developers of a 2,000-acre mixed-use project known as “Meridian Parks Remainder.” O’Neal said the waterways will be polluted and irreparably harmed if the permits are granted. Orlando attorney Steven Meyers, who filed the lawsuit and helped draft the charter amendment, said the case is the first enforcement action in the nation using a rights-of-nature concept.

“There have been a handful of other cases filed in the United States where supporters tried to validate a similar ordinance, but this is the first time it’s been used to actually try to stop development.”

The case will be watched closely not only in Central Florida but around the state because of the controversial legal theory, said Lee Steinhauer, director of government affairs for the Greater Orlando Builders Association and Apartment Association of Greater Orlando.