The Conservancy of Southwest Florida: Staying the course for the public good

December 2, 2021

By Nicole Johnson | Director of Environmental Policy, Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Marjory Stoneman Douglas famously penned one of the greatest books ever written on the Everglades, the eloquent and timeless The Everglades: River of Grass. Her conservation commitment is legendary to those of us committed to environmental protection, and we, like Marjory, are compelled to fight ecologically destructive development. More than seven decades after her book was published, the Conservancy is fighting our highest-profile battle against a damaging development in eastern Collier County with a namesake hijacked from River of Grass, the proposed Rivergrass Village.

In 2020, the Conservancy filed a lawsuit against Collier County for approving Rivergrass because the project blatantly flouted the county’s requirements for smart growth design, fiscal neutrality, and minimization of traffic impacts. Especially concerning was the fact that the development would significantly destroy endangered Florida panther habitat.

The case is far from over. While the circuit court ruled against us, there is much the public may not know. Before the trial even began, the court prohibited the Conservancy from presenting important claims including those related to Rivergrass’ substantial fiscal impact to Collier County and massive traffic implications. We firmly believe that these pretrial rulings were wrongly decided and we hope to finally get our day in court on appeal.

The Rivergrass appeal is about much more than just Rivergrass. The public’s ability to challenge irresponsible development could be eviscerated throughout much of Florida if the lower court’s incorrect ruling is upheld.  Numerous local, state, and national organizations understand the gravity of the situation, so they submitted amicus briefs in support of the Conservancy’s appeal, including: 

  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Sierra Club Florida
  • Strong Towns
  • League of Women Voters of Collier County
  • Florida Rights of Nature Network
  • Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
  • Calusa Waterkeeper
  • Cypress Cove Landkeepers
  • Stonecrab Alliance
  • Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida
  • Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association
  • Friends of the Everglades and Tropical Audubon Society represented by Everglades Law Center.

We remain optimistic. The Conservancy strongly believes we will ultimately win the Rivergrass appeal because Florida’s Community Planning Act, which relies on citizens to enforce comprehensive plans, clearly states that the entire comprehensive plan matters, not just bits and pieces of the plan.  A recent decision by the First District Court of Appeal further confirms this fact.  In Imhof v Walton County, the plaintiff similarly claimed that the public has a right to ensure that all elements of a local government’s comprehensive plan are followed.  The panel of appellate judges agreed and overturned the lower court’s decision. 

Lastly, we must address recent news coverage that focused on the potential for the Conservancy to pay the opposition’s large legal fees, should we lose our appeal. Although this is a possibility, citizens should understand that a “fees-shifting” provision, which is a recent law, was created for one purpose– to scare and discourage Floridians from ever challenging a development order. With this new law, the financial risks are too high for most citizens or groups who decide to challenge an illegal development order approved by their local government. We strongly believe the “fees-shifting” statute is unconstitutional because it violates due process and the right to petition the government for redress. Therefore, as one of Florida’s strongest environmental leaders, the Conservancy is fighting this undemocratic and unconstitutional law.

Development is needed in Southwest Florida, but it should be sustainable.  It should comply with the law, avoid sprawl, be fiscally responsible, and avoid impacts to irreplaceable natural resources.  The Conservancy’s mission remains to protect our water, land, wildlife, and our future.  Like Stoneman Douglas, we will continue to pursue our mission with determination and an unwavering commitment to science and facts.