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Citrus canker casualties hope restitution for cut-down trees is near

By Staff | Mar 28, 2019

After nearly two decades, two Cape Coral homeowners are sick of being pushed to the back of the line when it comes to getting fairly compensated for healthy backyard citrus trees cut by the state.

Cape residents Dee and John Klockow feel that the quest for full restitution has gone on for much too long, and said even monetary compensation cannot make good on the invasive steps the Florida Department of Agriculture took during its Citrus Canker Eradication Program.

“The thing is, is that it left your yard so scarred, there was no way that even $100 at Walmart, or anything, or $250, could replace it,” Dee said, referencing the store gift cards the state handed out initially, or the money a Lee Country jury ruled on as compensation per tree in 2014, which homeowners have yet to see.

The Citrus Canker Eradication Program made its way through Lee County in the early 2000s, including Cape Coral. The program called for the cutting of all citrus trees that may have been exposed to citrus canker, a disease that causes lesions on the leaves, stems and fruit of citrus trees, including oranges, grapefruit and lime.

The couple are snow birds, and remember hearing of the program before coming down from Michigan one year. Dee thought to herself, “They’re cutting down citrus trees? What the heck is going on?”

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

The Klockows said that the five citrus trees that were once on their property were a driving factor in why they bought their house in the first place.

“We bought our house for the trees, there were five beautiful, prolific trees here,” she said. “That made our choice between one (house) and another. ‘Look at those trees.’ We love the fruit. It’s Florida.”

At first glance, the pair was understanding of the program. If the trees are infected and can’t be treated, then of course they should be removed, they thought.

“For public good, I thought, well something’s going around they’re going to have to take care of it just like a vaccination. And then we got here and started reading about their poor science.

“In our research, we realized there’s not one other country in the world that does what we do to our orange trees – cut them all down,” Dee said.

John said it seemed that destroying some trees was a waste of money, as the canker disease does not make the fruit inconsumable, just unsightly.

“Ninety percent of the fruit in Florida goes to juice. And the fact that the citrus canker never hurt the fruit itself on the inside, only blemishes the outside, it seemed like a lot of money being wasted at the taxpayers expense,” he said.

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.

There’s a bit of unsavory irony as well, said Dee.

“The joke is, is we’re paying for the State’s attorneys, to deny us eminent domain rights,” she said. “We don’t have a chance. We have never been made whole. We’ll never have justice.”

“The law says, yes, take down the trees, but you have to give, key words, ‘fair compensation,'” John said. “Two hundred and eighty-five dollars a tree, for that beautiful tree, obviously is not even close, but, it’s the principle of the thing. You have to pay.”

Though it may seem like “just a tree,” Dee said people in her neighborhood had trees as remembrances of loved ones, and they become more than what meets the eye.

“My neighbors would say, ‘You know, my grandkids gave that to me in honor of grandpa.’ (Lots of) stories with trees – and I guess we shouldn’t become attached to them, but you do. People cried. It was just unbelievable.

“We were working at the time. I would’ve sat in the tree and let them drag me out, but, that’s just the way I am. I still am,” she said.

Initially, the Klockows thought their five trees would be saved from removal. Upon first inspection by program officials, they thought they were in the clear. It wasn’t until a month later eradication employees came back, saying one of their trees had, indeed, been infected, and all five would have to go.

“The worst of it was to see the wind blowing, and of course, (citrus canker) spreads airborne, and they’re cutting down the trees,” said John.

“We could see it from when we made the corner, it was just piles of airborne stuff all over the place the way they were shredding everything. It was not scientific,” Dee added.

Despite the fact that the Florida State House has again allocated citrus canker compensation in this year’s proposed budget, Dee’s glass is half empty about her reparations coming to fruition.

“I’m not confident we’ll get it at any early time. It’s just like a lottery ticket, when you lose so many times you don’t think you’re ever going to win,” she said.

John said at this point, anything would be considered a “victory” of sorts.

“The way I look at it, if we had (received) $10, just the idea – it’s kind of like David versus Goliath. And gol darn it, with all the political advantage they had, we’re still going to be compensated. So, I think it’s a small victory,” he said.

“It’s a victory more than compensation,” added Dee.

They both agree that a real injustice in the matter is the fact that many of the people who had their trees removed in the neighborhood are no longer around to get their just due, most having passed on.

The Klockows are part of a group of Lee County homeowners who 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.

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

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

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

The Legislature has until May 3 at 11:59 p.m. to come up with a final budget.

For more information, visit www.citruscankerlitagation.com

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj