(NSF) — The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services wants the Florida Supreme Court to put on hold a legal battle about payments to Lee County homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were cut down amid an effort to halt the spread of citrus-canker disease. The department on Wednesday filed a motion for a stay, after taking the long-running case to the Supreme Court last week.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal in November upheld a circuit judge’s ruling that directed the department to pay more than $13.6 million to the homeowners.
The motion filed Wednesday said the department wants to allow time for lawmakers to approve paying the money during the 2020 legislative session, which starts Jan. 14. “The department wishes to pay the judgments but does not have funds appropriated from the Legislature to do so,” the motion said. “The decision of the Second District holds that the department must pay the judgments despite the lack of an appropriation and holds unconstitutional statutes … which preclude the department from paying the judgments without an appropriation and provides that the lack of an appropriation made by law is a defense to a writ of mandamus (a type of court order directing a government to take action).”
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 the November 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. The 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld a ruling by Lee County Circuit Judge Keith Kyle, pointing to part of the Florida Constitution that bars the government from taking property without paying full compensation. But department lawyers have 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.
Source: News Service of Florida