In 2007, a retired Maryland scientist still remembered a special little corner of Florida that he wandered to as a child. This land, located near Mount Dora in northern Orange County, now belonged to him, and he wanted to know that it would be preserved. So he did what he thought he had to do to save it.
At the time, Kenneth Rubinson had no way of knowing that he had placed his trust in an organization that would renege on promises made by previous leaders. That the Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society (which from now on should be known only by its initials) would claim poverty, but would spend thousands of dollars to argue in court that those promises didn’t count. He did not foresee that the sign proclaiming that it was a nature reserve named after his mother and himself would be torn down and replaced with a sign declaring that it was open for sale. That the Florida Legislature would dismantle laws that promised permanent protected status to the property Rubinson wanted so badly to save.
This month Rubinson, now in his 70s, learned, in the dry words and legalese of a judge’s order, that he may live long enough to see that land cleared for another gas station.
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This, in microcosm, is the story of environmental protection in Florida. What is happening to our beloved state may be legal, but only under laws that have been twisted, twisted, and broken by lawmakers and regulators who serve deep-pocketed campaign donors. And while many environmental organizations still fight valiantly to preserve this state’s natural treasures, their mission can easily be undermined by oath-breakers and bargainers within their own ranks.
It is a sad and heartbreaking story. But it should inspire Floridians to fight harder. Demand strong protections that cannot be erased later. To remind elected officials that their first duty is to the people who elected them, people who have voted time and time again to tax land preservation in Florida in the belief that forever means forever. Withdraw your support from organizations that betray the name they bear, and transfer it to those who are committed to the fight.
That makes it important to understand exactly what happened to Rubinson’s six acres of desert.
When he decided to donate his land, Rubinson took reasonable precautions under the law at the time. He retained an experienced land use attorney: Tim Hoban, who arranged the donation of the property to OVAS with the understanding that it would be preserved and backed it by securing a conservation easement that should have protected the property “in perpetuity.” . essentially, forever.
A few years ago, Hoban says, he drove past the property and noticed that the preserve sign had been replaced with a sign offering the land for sale. He contacted the realtor and was told there were no easements on the land.
That turned out to be true: Before listing the property for sale, OVAS had taken advantage of the Legislature’s decision to dismantle state law, making conservation easements easy to remove.
Rubinson then contacted the OVAS leadership and asked them to allow the land to be transferred to a nearby Catholic church. They rejected.
He demanded. Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Denise Beamer ruled that since the original transfer did not formally create a charitable trust, it did not have a case. Beamer’s hands may have been tied: Other cases brought by other donors in recent years have played out in a similar way.
Meanwhile, there is a movement within the environmental community to devalue small, isolated wilderness areas in favor of saving large, connected corridors. That doesn’t mean what OVAS did was correct: if the chapter leaders didn’t want to take responsibility for maintaining this property, they should have honored Rubinson’s request to return it. Instead, they called their bewilderment “absurd” and “frivolous” and waged a legal war that relied on laws and precedents that were not in place when the original agreement was reached.
The trust they have shattered is echoing in expressions of disgust on social media platforms and in the hasty statement issued by National Audubon and the Florida Audubon Society that they “take seriously their responsibility to honor the intent of donors when accepting gifts.” “and they have no authority to do so. revoke the decision of OVAS.
Audubon Florida, a state program of the National Audubon Society, does not have legal control over the Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society, which is an independent 501(c)(3) organization. Audubon Florida and National Audubon take seriously their responsibility to honor the intent of donors when accepting gifts. While Audubon Florida cannot order the Oklawaha Valley chapter to act in any particular way, we have advised it in the past to respect the intent behind this property donation. While we disagree with the chapter’s course of action, we respect the court’s decision and continue to encourage the chapter to protect donated land. — Audubon Florida statement
That seems to be true. But the national and state organization can, and should, take all possible steps to prevent OVAS from further tarnishing Audubon’s name if the local chapter refuses to change course. The leaders of both organizations must pronounce themselves with an unequivocal complaint and reproach. Other environmental groups should also respond.
There is much more at stake here than the fate of six acres in Orange County. It is about the concept of “trust”, not its legal definition. And it is about the meaning of the words “preserve” and “forever”. In a state that has invested billions of taxpayer dollars in conservation lands, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
This editorial has been modified from the print version to include details of court documents. The Orlando Sentinel editorial board consists of Opinion Editor Krys Fluker, Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, and Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick. Contact us at [email protected]