(NSF) — The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has gone to the state Supreme Court after lower courts ordered payment of more than $13.6 million to Lee County homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were cut down amid an effort to halt the spread of citrus-canker disease. The department has filed a notice of appeal that is a first step in asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, according to documents posted on the court website Tuesday. As is common, the notice does not detail the department’s legal arguments.
The class-action lawsuit was filed against the department in 2003 for taking 33,957 healthy citrus trees on 11,811 residential properties in Lee County, according to a Nov. 13 decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeal. The trees were cut down as the department tried to combat citrus canker, which can cause major damage and spread rapidly.
In 2014, after a jury trial, the Lee County homeowners were awarded $13.625 million plus interest, along with nearly $822,000 in attorney fees. Lawmakers in 2017 approved spending $37.4 million to compensate the Lee County homeowners and Broward County property owners who had filed a similar lawsuit. But then-Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the money, citing “ongoing litigation” as the reason. That led the Lee County homeowners to go back to circuit court, where Judge Keith Kyle directed the state to make the payments.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal last month upheld Kyle’s ruling, pointing to part of the Florida Constitution that bars the government from taking property without paying full compensation. The department’s arguments have focused, at least in part, on two sections of state law that deal with agencies paying legal judgments. Department lawyers contended that agencies need budget appropriations from the Legislature to be able to make such payments.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who was elected last year, has requested $19.1 million in the upcoming 2020-2021 state budget to resolve the Lee County case, a spokesman said last month. Lawmakers will negotiate a new budget during the legislative session that starts Jan. 14.
Source: News Service of Florida