Homeowners Oppose Stay in Citrus Tree Battle

Daniel Cooper Diseases, Legislative


(NSF) — Attorneys for Lee County homeowners urged the Florida Supreme Court on Monday to reject the state’s request for a stay in a long-running legal battle about compensating residents for healthy citrus trees cut down amid an effort to halt the spread of citrus canker disease.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services last week asked the Supreme Court to put the case on hold to allow time for the Legislature to decide whether to pay the homeowners during the 2020 legislative session, which starts Jan 14.

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, leading the department to take the dispute to the Supreme Court. But in a document filed Monday, attorneys for the homeowners said the state could have paid the judgments the past three years but did not do so, with then-Gov. Rick Scott vetoing an appropriation in 2017.

The document said that given the past failure to pay the judgments, “there is no compelling reason to stay this appeal pending the outcome of the 2020 session.” 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