Late last year, voters in Orange County, Fla., pushed through a "rights of nature" law, making it the largest US municipality to do so, per a November release from the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights. The legislation basically gives rights to rivers, streams, marshes, and lakes throughout the county, as well as a right to clean water for residents. Now, an unusual lawsuit is testing the new law. The complaint filed against a developer and the state on April 26, on behalf of the county's waterways—plaintiffs include Wilde Cypress Branch, Boggy Branch, Crosby Island Marsh, Lake Hart, and Lake Mary Jane—alleges that a 1,900-acre housing development in the planning stages by Beachline South Residential LLC would destroy dozens of acres of wetlands and streams due to pollution and filling, as well as 18 additional acres of wetlands where stormwater detention ponds would need to be set up, per the Guardian.
Not only that, the suit claims, but residents would be at risk of polluted water due to runoff from the newly constructed structures and thoroughfares. The building of the Meridian Parks Remainder Project can't begin until various development and dredging permits are issued, which is what the complaint is trying to block. "Our waterways and the wildlife they support have been systematically destroyed by poorly planned suburban sprawl," says Chuck O'Neal of the conservation group Speak Up Wekiva, who will represent the waterways in court. "They have suffered in silence and without representation, until now." State officials are declining to comment, as is Beachline, though in a November application it said it would make up for dredging damage by purchasing federal mitigation credits. The CDER release notes that dozens of US cities, counties, and townships have right of nature laws in place, while countries like Uganda, Ecuador, and Bolivia have them on a national level. (Read more lawsuit stories.)