Landmark victory for Florida’s future will impact the proposed Bellmar and Kingston Developments, as they cannot receive their permit through Florida’s flawed program.

By the Conservancy of Southwest Florida with permission to Engage Estero.

February 16, 2024

Federal Court Sides with Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Our Partners: A Case of National Implication and Essential to Protect Florida’s Future 

On February 16, 2024, a federal court struck down an unlawful scheme that threatened Florida’s wetlands and the species that inhabit them.

For over three years, the Conservancy has sought to defend our critical wetlands, flow-ways, and water-driven ecosystems in a challenge to Florida’s assumed wetland permitting program.

We have been foundational to the case as star declarants. We are uniquely situated to support the litigation as an organization located in the heart of the Western Everglades and Big Cypress watershed.

Our detailed technical analysis of state Clean Water Act Section 404 permit applications for proposed sprawl development that would encroach on wetlands and endangered species habitats helped provide concrete examples of how this unlawful delegation of authority failed to protect our natural resources.

Earthjustice attorneys with Plaintiff representatives from the Center for Biological Diversity and Conservancy of Southwest Florida outside the Washington, D.C. courthouse.

The legal challenge was first launched in 2021, after the transfer of authority for what is typically a federal responsibility under the Clean Water Act was rushed to the state of Florida before a change in federal administrations.

The development community has heralded the Clean Water Act oversight transfer to Florida as a way to streamline and fast-track development. Allowing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to make decisions about wetland dredge-and-fill permits without the necessary checks and balances has allowed developers to evade considerations and protections like those found in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The unlawful state-assumed program moved forward in the last days of 2020 due to a scheme that provided Florida with a “blank check” on the amount of imperiled wildlife that could be harmed and killed incidental to developments, mines, roadways, and other destructive projects.

Southwest Florida has a lot at stake. In just six proposed development and mining projects going through the unlawful state 404 wetland permitting program, nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands are at risk of destruction. With those same projects, over 8,000 acres of the most important habitat for the endangered Florida panther are also at risk. Southwest Florida is the only area where the big cats remain, and their population was last estimated at 120-230 adults and subadults. The judge’s ruling will allow for a better review of the proposed development as the state of Florida is experiencing extreme pressure from growth. But this historic win goes beyond that. This ruling will have national implications, ensuring that other states that looked to copy Florida’s flawed program will be dissuaded.

Closer to home, the Bellmar and Kingston development projects and any pending or future projects that may affect endangered and threatened species anywhere in the state of Florida cannot receive their permit through Florida’s flawed program.

We are grateful to our legal counsel, Earthjustice, who brought this challenge on behalf of the Conservancy and six other Plaintiffs representing unique and important parts of Florida from the St. John’s River to the Western Everglades.

Earthjustice’s Senior Attorney, Bonnie Malloy, stated, “It has been a joy to partner with Conservancy on this important challenge to EPA’s unlawful approval of Florida’s 404 program. The Conservancy’s commitment to protecting Florida’s wetlands is unwavering and inspiring. We are privileged to represent Conservancy in this case.”

“The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been working to protect our wetland ecosystems and endangered wildlife of the Western Everglades for 60 years. We are thankful that this ruling will reestablish the foundational laws that help us protect this unique and critical landscape,” said the Conservancy’s Environmental Policy Manager, Amber Crooks.

Earthjustice’s press release