Editorial: A tale of betrayal and the losing battle to preserve natural Florida

Tribune Content Agency

Back in 2007, a retired scientist in Maryland still reminisced about a special little corner of Florida where he roamed as a child. That land, situated near Mount Dora in North Orange County, belonged to him now, and he wanted to know it would be preserved. So he did what he thought he needed to do to save it.

At the time, Kenneth Rubinson had no way of knowing that he’d placed his trust in an organization that would renege on promises made by past leadership. That the Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society (which henceforth should be known by its initials only) would plead poverty, but spend thousands of dollars to argue in court that those promises didn’t count. He didn’t foresee that the sign that proclaimed it to be a nature preserve named for his mother and himself would be torn down and replaced with a sign declaring it open for sale. That the Florida Legislature would gut the laws that promised permanent protective status to the property Rubinson wanted so badly to save.

This month, Rubinson — now in his late 70s — learned, in the dry words and legalese of a judge’s order that he may live long enough to see that land clear-cut for yet another gas station.

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, bent and broken by lawmakers and regulators serving deep-pockets campaign donors. And while many environmental organizations still fight valiantly to preserve this state’s natural treasures, their mission can easily be undermined by oathbreakers and dealmakers among their own ranks.

It is a sad and harrowing story. But it should inspire Floridians to fight harder. To demand protections that are ironclad and cannot later be erased. To remind elected officials that their first duty is to the people who elected them, people who have voted time after time to tax themselves for land preservation in Florida in the belief that forever means forever. To withdraw their support from organizations that betray the names they carry, and transfer it to those who are committed to the fight.

That makes it important to understand exactly what happened with Rubinson’s six acres of wilderness.

Promises made

When he decided to donate his land, Rubinson took rational precautions under the law at the time. He hired 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 up 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 realized that the sign for the preserve had been replaced by a sign offering the land for sale. He contacted the listing Realtor and was told there was no easement on the land.

That turned out to be true: Prior to listing the property for sale, OVAS had taken advantage of the Legislature’s decision to gut state law, making conservation easements easy to remove.

Rubinson then contacted OVAS leaders and asked them to allow the land to be transferred to a nearby Catholic church. They refused.

He sued. Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Denise Beamer ruled that, since the original transfer didn’t formally create a charitable trust , he didn’t have a case. Beamer’s hands may have been tied — other cases brought by other donors in recent years have played out along similar lines.

Meanwhile, there’s a movement among the environmental community that devalues small, isolated patches of wilderness in favor of saving large, connected corridors. That doesn’t make what OVAS did right: If chapter leaders didn’t want the responsibility of maintaining this property, they should have honored Rubinson’s request to give it back. Instead, they called his bewilderment “absurd” and “frivolous” and waged a legal war that was based on laws and precedent that weren’t in place when the original deal was struck.

The trust they have shattered is reverberating in the expressions of disgust across social media platforms and the hasty statement issued by National Audubon and the Florida Audubon Society that they “take seriously their responsibility to honor donors’ intent when accepting gifts” and have no authority to reverse OVAS’ decision.

That appears to be true. But the national and state organization can, and should, take whatever action they can to keep OVAS from further sullying the Audubon name if the local chapter refuses to reverse course. Leaders in both organizations should speak out with an unequivocal denunciation and reproach. Other environmental groups should respond as well.

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 from 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 insight@orlandosentinel.com