Editorial: Local environment has a law firm as an advocate.
The environment in Northeast Florida has a lawyer, actually a team of lawyers representing it — The Public Trust Environmental Legal Institute of Florida.
Since attorney Warren Anderson founded it in 2005, the Public Trust has been a powerful advocate for the region’s environment. While government regulators are hobbled by regulatory policies and procedures, Public Trust has the advantage of being able to take immediate action and leverage the law.
Executive Director John November said they use the court system when necessary but often legal pressure is enough to ensure a change in behavior or policy.
An early victory was defeating the proposal to build a cruise ship terminal in Mayport, which would have impacted the historic village, the local fishing industry and the Timucuan Ecological Preserve.
Public Trust also has been a champion for restoring the city’s tree canopy, which has been in decline steadily due to development, disease, aging and storms.
In 2015, Public Trust filed a complaint against the city for failing to spend the tree mitigation fund that was established by a charter amendment passed in 2000 by 76 percent of Duval County voters. The money comes from developers who pay permitting fees when they cut down trees, and it is to be used to plant trees on public property elsewhere in the county.
The problem was the money — $20 million — was just sitting in the account.
To settle the suit, the city agreed to establish a Tree Commission to advise the city about where trees need to be planted. The city also hired an arborist and increased its forestry staff and established a public database of tree-cutting permits and disbursements. The two latest projects are plantings at Sulzbacher Village and Huguenot Park.
The Public Trust also successfully sued JEA, Clay County Utility Authority and other polluters for violating the Clean Water Act by dumping sewage in the St. Johns River.
In 2009 Atlantic Beach got the help of the Public Trust, which negotiated the acquisition of River Branch Preserve, 350 acres of marshes, shallow waterways and islands. It lies between Tide Views Preserve and Dutton Island.
In 2018, the Public Trust negotiated the acquisition of Selva Preserve, one of the last undeveloped properties in Atlantic. Beach. Five single-family homes are planned for the site with construction to limit impact on the wetlands in the area.
And Public Trust is engaged in a long-term initiative to monitor water quality, identify failing septic systems and seek out novel approaches for alternative funding and solutions.
They have been monitoring 100 facilities that dump 500 million gallons of wastewater into the rivers. Twenty-two were singled out for violations and five were identified for possible legal action.
One of the offenders is the U.S. Navy, which has an outdated sewer system that dumps nitrogen and other chemicals that contribute to algae blooms. The system will be extraordinarily expensive to replace. Public Trust is encouraged by a proposal to have a private company take over sewage treatment.
Public Trust also is putting together a network of volunteers to monitor water quality stations throughout the river system. This would fill in the gaps in monitoring being done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which doesn’t test for the agricultural impact on water quality and bio solids.
But Public Trust also wants the public to become engaged with the environment. Toward that end, it publishes the Greater Jacksonville Paddling Guides for the rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway. The guides include the locations of boat ramps, kayak launches, suggested routes and GPS coordinates on a waterproof map. It also includes a short history of the river.
Many more challenges lie ahead. Public Trust encourages the public to report problems they see with threats to the environment and compliance issues.
Northeast Florida is fortunate to have a team of lawyers with a passion for preserving and defending our environment.