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Citrus canker reimbursement proposed in House budget

By Staff | Mar 21, 2019

Still waiting for compensation for the removal of citrus trees on your property? After nearly two decades, it may be coming.

The House released its proposed 2019-2020 fiscal year budget on Tuesday, which includes $18 million for Lee County residents who had trees removed from their property by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services due to citrus canker, a disease that causes lesions on the leaves, stems and fruit of citrus trees, including oranges, grapefruit and lime.

There is no guarantee these appropriations will come to fruition, as this is just a budget proposal. The House will work with the Senate and their budget to come to an agreement for state spending for the fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“This is long overdue,” said 77th District Rep. Dane Eagle. “I’m pleased the House has put it forward. (Now we) have to negotiate with the Senate.”

The fight for restitution has been a long one, spanning nearly two decades and across five counties as the FDACS removed hundreds of thousands of infected and uninfected trees under the Citrus Canker Eradication Program from 2000-2006.

In Lee County, 33,957 healthy, uninfected trees were removed from nearly 12,000 properties during that time frame, as any citrus tree within 1,900-foot arc of an infected one was considered already contaminated and was cut.

Citrus canker spreads via wind and rain, making it possible for the bacteria to travel to new, susceptible hosts and becomes unrelenting when an area is contaminated. It leaves lesions on fruit, causing them to drop prematurely. It is not unsafe for a human to consume a fruit with this disease, though they are unsightly.

“Any time the government puts citizens at a loss, they should get something back,” Eagle said.

A group of Lee County homeowners sued the FDACS in 2003 to recover full compensation for loss of healthy trees. The class-action lawsuit has navigated the judicial channels for over a decade with nothing to show except $100 Walmart gift cards (to only the garden center) and $55 checks for each additional tree.

A victory was thought to be had in 2014, as a Lee County jury decided that those affected should be awarded $285.25 per-tree, for all 33,957 removed less deductions to those who received gift cards and checks.

The FDACS appealed and no payments were made.

“The state committed a cardinal sin,” said Bobby Gilbert, lead council for the Lee County homeowners, as well as for the four other counties involved. “When government destroys private property for a government purpose, they are owed full compensation.

“They’re going to have to pay one way or another, and if not, the (U.S. & state) Constitution is not worth the paper it’s written on.”

In 2016, the Second District Court of Appeals upheld the 2014 decision to have the FDACS pay up, but they refused.

“Judge (Keith R.) Kyle declared the statue (that the FDACS claimed they were protected by) unconstitutional as it applies to the case. The Department of Agriculture was ordered to pay the bill,” said Gilbert.

The FDACS argued that it didn’t have to pay because they removed the trees which were a “nuisance,” Gilbert said.

Fast-forward to 2017. The Lee Homeowners and their legal representation petitioned the 2017 Legislature for an appropriation for the 2014 ruling. The Legislature agreed and cut out $16,475,800 to pay the compensation judgement and two other fee judgments to Class Counsel until then-governor Rick Scott vetoed the appropriation.

In 2018, the Lee Homeowners petitioned the Legislature to appropriate funds. They did not, though they did appropriate funds for all judgements in Broward and Palm Beach County cases.

The case is set to be heard by the Second District Court in mid-May, unless the funds are appropriated by the State Legislature.

Gilbert said he feels confident the court will uphold Judge Kyle’s decision, though expects the FDACS to appeal to the Supreme Court if so.

Along with Lee, Miami-Dade and Orange County are still waiting for reimbursement as well.

Good news might be on the way for them as well, as a total of $58.1 million total has been tendered in the proposed budget for citrus canker payments.

“People should be compensated,” Eagle said. “We’ve pushed for this time and time again. We still have to make sure it’s in the final budget. But I’m happy to see it’s there.”

“Twelve thousand people (in Lee County) have been waiting for over a decade. I want to get them their money,” Gilbert said.

The citrus industry is one of the largest in Florida, as it is a major, major part of the state’s economy.

Eagle said the Legislature is doing all it can to make sure Florida’s state symbol will be here for years to come.

Though things like canker, hurricanes and “greening” – the latest threat to citrus trees – are making things difficult to produce in the state that grows the majority of citrus fruit in the country.

Also in the House budget is $6,627,569 for citrus health response and $8 million for citrus research.

“We’re doing our best for the citrus industry. Citrus and agriculture are very important to our state and economy,” said Eagle. “The fact that we have this industry – whose shortfalls are of no fault of their own – needs science and funding to continue to help it thrive. The future is strong if we continue to address these issues.”

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj