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County commission considers Rights of Nature and offsetting the County’s carbon footprint

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

A COVID-19 update, Rights of Nature, and offsetting Alachua County’s carbon footprint were all discussed at today’s Alachua County Commission meeting.

COVID-19 update

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After Paul Myers, Administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County, updated the Alachua County Commission on the latest COVID-19 and vaccination data, Chair Ken Cornell said, “I’m hopeful that as more vaccines get into Paul’s hands, UF’s hands, by I would say April or May… we’re probably going to be here through the summer, but then hopefully we’ll be able to begin lifting our [Emergency Order]. I also want to recognize that the governor last week extended the statewide emergency order for another 60 days. So that’s kind of my time table for those that are watching—unless this board tells me otherwise, we’ll just keep the course, try to make it here to the end of the trip.”

The 60-day extension of the governor’s emergency order was signed on February 26.

Rights of Nature presentation

Senior Assistant County Attorney Corbin Hanson gave a presentation on Rights of Nature legislation, which “recognizes nature as its own entity… [and] attempts to grant personhood to resources.” He said the legislation would allow the resource itself (such as a river) to initiate a lawsuit instead of relying on interest groups. The board had specifically asked staff to bring back information about Orange County’s recent approval of similar legislation, so Hanson explained that in 2020, voters in Orange County approved a Charter referendum that recognizes the Wekiva River and other bodies of water have a “right to exist” and that all citizens have a right to clean water. He said the Charter amendment has not yet been enforced or challenged; its language is similar to the language being circulated as a proposed ordinance in Alachua County. 

Alachua County’s Charter Review Commission considered an amendment proposed by SAFEBOR (Santa Fe River Bill of Rights) in 2020 but ultimately voted against moving it to the ballot. 

Hanson discussed several obstacles to Rights of Nature as proposed, including a State preemption against granting legal rights to a plant, animal, body of water, or any other part of the natural environment. He also said that courts generally limit standing to persons who can show injury in fact, plus it could be difficult for a court to decide who gets to speak on behalf of a river: “You could have a situation where an individual comes and challenges an action and says, well, ‘I think what was done is against the river’s interest and I speak on behalf of the river,’ and you can see another situation where conflicting opinion arises and a person says, ‘I speak on behalf of the river.’ There’s no way to determine which one of those individuals clearly speaks on behalf of the river.”

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said, “I had not heard this word until this morning—ecocide—and I was … listening on NPR, so I didn’t get where it was used or who was using it, and I looked it up, and the definition was that the ecosystems are so precious, that some argue that their destruction should be considered an international crime… I think ethically [this issue] is something we need to keep on the front burner and watch to see where we can actually jump in so that everybody feels comfortable with how we do it, or even a little uncomfortable, because, you know, ecocide, that’s a pretty profound idea.”

Cornell said the state’s preemption “really shut the door for us and indicated to me that we need different leadership at the state level.”

The board took no action on the Rights of Nature item.

Offsetting Alachua County’s Carbon Footprint

Commissioner Mary Alford then gave her presentation on “Offsetting Alachua County’s carbon footprint while providing housing stability through energy efficient upgrades.” She explained that her plan was in line with Alachua County’s Comprehensive Plan, which includes housing and energy objectives, and the City of Gainesville’s goal of 100% renewable electricity and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. 

Alford explained that a number of factors, including COVID-19, a moratorium on evictions (leading to increasing debt for families who don’t realize they may need to pay their back rent after COVID), landlords who are shouldering the burden of unpaid rent, lack of access to the internet, and climate change, are contributing to the problem. 

Her presentation listed several sources of data regarding the burden of utility bills in our community. Her “ideal solution” to these high utility bills is to reduce the carbon footprint for Alachua County government and for residents, which she said would lead to more availability of affordable housing and a robust economy.

Alford’s proposed plan is to provide energy-efficient upgrades, calculate the energy saved, and use it to offset Alachua County’s carbon footprint, first using COVID funding and then working toward funding the newly-authorized housing trust fund with a sales tax. Alford added, “Remember: The greenest house is the one that is already there.” 

The County would start with the neediest neighborhoods and address windows, insulation, HVAC, hot water heaters, etc., Landlords would have to agree to maintain housing as affordable housing in exchange for upgrades. She said the funding could be used to support various non-profits that would in turn do the work.

Her “Keep it Simple” plan involves calculating the average energy usage of a neighborhood, performing upgrades, then claiming the saved energy as a carbon offset for the County: “Everyone wins.” She added that there would also be an opportunity to offer additional social services while workers are in the homes.

During public comment on the item, Nathan Skop pointed out that reducing utility usage doesn’t necessarily reduce bills because the utility has fixed costs that still must be collected. So if GRU’s customer base reduces overall usage, GRU would have to raise rates to compensate.

Alford responded, “There is a trend around the country to start looking at providing utilities as a service, more than measuring your kilowatt hours, and so as we achieve a certain level of efficiency… you are charged like you would for your internet, by the demand that you need, so if all your appliances come on at the same time and require a lot of energy, that’s your demand. So if we had tiered demands and a flat rate, then we can make this work without penalizing the folks at the lowest end. But you have to get to that point first.”

Alford’s motion passed unanimously: “Ask staff to bring back potential options to implement the proposed program, which includes providing energy-efficient upgrades to sub-standard housing, working with landlords to maintain housing as affordable, and finally to offset the County’s carbon footprint with these energy-efficient upgrades.”

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