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Lee Countians to finally get citrus canker reimbursement

By Staff | Jul 16, 2020

It took 17 years and a lot of time in courtrooms, but Lee County residents who had their citrus trees cut down as part of a state canker erradication program will finally get the money that is owed to them.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on July 1 signed a budget that includes more than $19.1 million in reimbursement for Lee County homeowners whose trees were cut down.

The money is being wired from the state’s agriculture department to the residents’ attorney in the case, Robert Gilbert.

“I am delighted to confirm we have received the money from the legislature, will pay the Lee County homeowners in full, and I anticipate the payments will be distributed in the fourth quarter of this year,” Gilbert said. “The judgement could not be ignored anymore.”

State Rep. Dane Eagle, R-77, said this is a case he has worked on for eight years, and is pleased that residents have finally been made whole.

“Orange trees are property, and when the state takes away property, they are owed just compensation. Constitutionally, these residents have been owed this money for going on two decades, which is uncalled for,” Eagle said.

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services cut down nearly 33,957 healthy and infected citrus trees on 11,811 properties as a way to combat citrus canker, which can cause major damage and spread rapidly, between 2000 and 2006.

Any citrus tree within 1,900-foot arc of an infected one was considered 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.

According to previous reports, a group of homeowners sued the FDACS in April 2003 to recover full compensation for the loss of their trees. A decade later, the class-action suit resulted in $100 Walmart gift cards (to only the garden center) and $55 checks for each additional tree.

In 2014, after a jury trial, the Lee County homeowners were awarded $13.625 million plus interest, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. Those effected would have received $285.25 per tree, less the gift cards and checks.

The FDACS appealed and no payments were made. In 2016, the Second District Court of Appeals upheld the decision, but they refused.

Lawmakers in 2017 approved spending $37.4 million to compensate Lee and Broward County property owners who filed a similar lawsuit, Then Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the money, citing ongoing litigation.”

In 2018, lawmakers agreed to pay $52 million to Palm Beach and Broward counties, but did not include Lee County. Judge Keith Kyle directed the state to make the payments to the county.

The money was again left out of the budget in 2019. Eagle said he made it a point to make sure the money was included in this budget and not vetoed because of the pandemic.

Gilbert said the eligible property owners will get “cold, hard cash” in the form of a check and not gift cards or vouchers.

“The amount will be based on what the jury awarded and what the court entered in as a final judgement and distributed to the nearly 12,000 families who are eligible,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said there will be an advanced search for those people affected (in the event they have moved or passed away), who will be awarded the money when found. If the homeowner(s) has died, the money will go to survivors.

John Klockow, who along with his wife and five other families in Lee County have fought this case, was happy this case seems to finally be coming to an end.

“It’s not about the money, but the idea that it was an eminent domain case. The law says you must receive just and fair compensation,” Klockow said. “We are thrilled. The law works, we just didn’t expect it to take this long.”

Gilbert summed everything up with a rather apropos statement, considering the case.

“I feel gratified and humbled that 17 years of effort on behalf of these property owners has finally borne fruit,” Gilbert said.