FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Attorneys representing Broward County homeowners are demanding the state pay a $20 million judgment for tearing down healthy citrus trees in a failed attempt to eradicate citrus canker.
The legal battle could set a precedent that might spread to four other counties and increase the final bill to $200 million.
The attorneys filed a motion Monday asking a state judge to order the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Commissioner Adam Putnam pay the 70,000 homeowners for their lost trees and their legal fees. About $15 million would go to the homeowners and $5 million to the attorneys.
“It’s time to hold Commissioner Putnam and the department accountable for their continuing disregard of the homeowners’ constitutional rights,” lead attorney Robert C. Gilbert said.
Agriculture department spokesman Aaron Keller said the money cannot be paid without the Legislature’s approval, which it hasn’t given. He said the tree removal program would have stopped the spread of canker if a judge hadn’t stopped it three times, giving the disease an opportunity to spread.
Canker is a bacterial disease that blemishes a tree’s fruit and can cause it to drop prematurely, although fruit that ripens can still be squeezed for juice — the primary use of Florida’s commercial citrus crop. After a 53-year lull, canker reappeared in Florida in 1986 and was spread by the wind.
A last-ditch attempt to protect Florida’s $9 billion dollar citrus industry from widespread contamination began in 2000, as the state ordered the destruction of even healthy citrus trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree with or without the owner’s permission. More than 16 million trees were destroyed statewide during the six-year program, including 865,000 residential trees, before a series of hurricanes spread canker too widely to be eradicated.
For compensation, the state gave each homeowner a $100 Wal-Mart gift card for the first tree killed and $55 cash for each subsequent tree, but thousands complained their trees were worth much more.
Class-action lawsuits were filed and courts agreed, ruling the average tree was worth more than $400. Judges ordered homeowners in Broward, Lee, Orange and Palm Beach counties to be fully compensated. Those rulings total about $100 million and a Miami-Dade County case that remains open could double that.
The state has refused to pay, however, saying that under Florida law, the Legislature must authorize the payments. The Broward homeowners’ attorneys petitioned the Legislature unsuccessfully during its 2014 session.
In Monday’s filing, the attorneys argue that the U.S. and Florida constitutions prohibit the government from taking private property without fair compensation and that the state can’t avoid payment even if the Legislature doesn’t approve. They want the state law declared unconstitutional.
Regardless of what the Broward court decides, Gilbert expects the case to reach the Florida Supreme Court.
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