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Citrus Canker settlement: It’s time to pay up

March 27, 2019
Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Lee County homeowners still waiting for fair compensation for backyard citrus trees chopped by the state nearly two decades ago won't have to wait much longer if a proposal in the Florida House budget passes this session.

Included in the House 2019-20 budget released Tuesday is an $18,113,116 appropriation for Lee County residents who lost trees as part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Citrus Canker Eradication Program which ran from 2000-2006.

The agency, in an effort to control a disease they say threatened the citrus industry, removed infected trees as well healthy trees in a 1,900-foot "arc" around those exhibiting the signs of canker - specific lesions on the leaves, stems and fruit.

Compensation, for what the courts have since determined to be inverse condemnation - an unconstitutional "taking" - was well below replacement costs.

Here in Lee, homeowners got a $100 voucher, to be used only in Walmart Garden Centers, for the first tree chopped. They got $55 for each additional tree.

Suffice to say they - and thousands of others across the state - were not happy.

In 2003, six residents, on behalf of 12,000 Lee homeowners, took action that others in Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties also took. They filed suit to recover "full damages" for non-infected trees removed as part of the program.

The class action suits wound up in various state courts with the homeowner cases prevailing everywhere but Miami-Dade.

Here in Lee, a jury, in July 2014, awarded $285.25 per tree for the 33,957 trees cut. That August, the circuit court followed with a final judgment of $13,625,249. Legal costs were awarded in separate actions. With interest - growing at $872,000 per year - the tally now stands at about $18 million.

But as appeal after appeal followed, there were no payouts.

Until last year when the state Legislature appropriated $22,049,046 for compensation, interest and legal fees for affected Broward County homeowners and another $30,045,125 for homeowners in Palm Beach County. Checks were mailed to homeowners there on Jan.15 of this year.

So hope here in Lee, finally and at last, for something our state Rep. Dane Eagle says is long overdue.

We agree.

But despite last year's proposed appropriations and House support again, there still are no guarantees.

First, assuming the House stands firm, the Senate has to agree. Then any legislative appropriation has to pass gubernatorial muster - which a similar proposal did not under Gov. Ron DeSantis' predecessor, Rick Scott.

Former governor, now U.S. Sen. Scott vetoed a legislative appropriation in 2017 that called for $37.3 million, total, for 167,677 affected homeowners in Lee County and another 70,036 in Broward.

Those who had their trees cut - and all of us opposed to state "takings" without appropriate compensation - need to weigh in this go around.

Let our state level reps, both House and Senate, know that it's long past time to stop paying the continuing - yes, still continuing - appeals costs and escalating interest and compensate those who lost their citrus trees in a program that ultimately failed to deliver the hoped-for bang for the buck.

Let Gov. DeSantis know as well.

There's far more at stake here than dead trees and how much they were worth.

It's about private property rights, constitutional protections, and the need to protect both.

Abridging those rights comes at a cost - as it should.

So it's time - long past time - to pay up and make those infringed-upon homeowners whole.

For those interested in additional information - or just a look at government wasting your money on a battle fought and lost - the Citrus Canker Compensation Litigation Website, citruscankerlitigation.com, has a full history of the issue, including various court documents, findings and rulings.

-Observer editorial

 
 

 

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