A circuit judge has ruled Hendry County did not violate Sunshine Law when it approved two primate breeding facilities in 2012 and 2013.
This comes after a lengthy legal battle filed by local residents and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
They charged county staff made a policy decision behind closed doors.
At question was whether or not breeding primates for psychological, behavioral and biomedical research counts as agriculture.
If considered the same as breeding cows or pigs, then the local process for approving a facility would not require public meetings.
Circuit Judge James Sloan decided the practices fell under the county’s comprehensive plan regarding agriculture.
The lawsuit targeted two primate breeding facilities. The first was Primate Products. It was the first primate breeding company to come to Hendry County in 2000. The lawsuit sought to stop an expansion that was approved in 2012.
The second company named in the lawsuit was SoFlo Ag, which was given permission to build in Hendry County in 2013.
Some members of the public have scrutinized the county’s primate breeding facilities. Their concerns range from the animals’ treatment to them potentially carrying diseases.
County Administrator Charles Chapman said he’s pleased with the ruling.
“Whether or not the project was popular or unpopular, that was not what this case was about. It was a procedural case of whether or not our governing body had violated the Sunshine Law and we were just very pleased that the judge agreed with us,” he said.
One piece of the ruling dealt with how the county approved Primate Products' first facility in 2000.
That involved the staff saying the use was considered agriculture.
In two future county commission meetings, primate breeding facilities were brought up and commissioners did not challenge the staff’s interpretation.
The judge relied on that precedent in the 2012 and 2013 cases.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Christopher Berry said every step of that first decision back in 2000 was not made in public.
He said just because the first policy was done in violation of the law does not mean future instances should be given the okay.
“It’s too easy for the county to – or for other counties, for other local governments - to evade the requirements of the Sunshine Law because you can just create a policy in secret. Sit on it for four years and there’s no recourse for the citizens to object to that or to make sure that their voice is heard,” he said.
Berry said the organization intends to appeal the decision.
Read the ruling: