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Lee judge approves citrus canker reimbursement plan

By CJ HADDAD - | Nov 19, 2020

Update:

Lee County property owners who had healthy citrus trees cut as part of the state’s canker eradication program will now be reimbursed for the value of those trees removed up to 20 years ago.

Lee Circuit Judge Keith R. Kyle approved the plan of distribution at a hearing Friday afternoon.

The proposed $565 per-tree figure for trees cut between 2000-2006 as part of the state program will be $558-$560/tree after further analysis.

Original post:

Citrus canker reimbursement hearing today

A victory as satisfying as a Florida orange will come to Lee County residents who were left with a bitter taste in their mouth after citrus trees were ripped from their property in the early 2000s.

Now 17 years later, homeowners who were affected by the state’s citrus canker eradication program are set to have compensation finalized this Friday after nearly two decades of trials and appeals.

Lee Circuit Judge Keith R. Kyle will preside over a hearing Friday afternoon to determine allocation and distribution of funds going forward.

In March of 2019, the Florida House released its proposed 2019-2020 fiscal year budget that included $18 million for Lee County residents who had trees removed from their property by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services due to citrus canker, a disease that causes lesions on the leaves, stems and fruit of citrus trees, including oranges, grapefruit and lime.

In July of 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the state’s budget which included more than $19.1 million in reimbursement for Lee County homeowners that covers attorney’s fees, expenses, as well as compensation.

“It feels great to get to this day,” said Robert Gilbert, lead attorney on behalf of the residents. “It’s a very satisfying feeling to know that although the road was long, and at times very painful and difficult, ultimately justice prevailed.”

After meticulously tracing back records, it was determined approximately 11,742 eligible Lee County homeowners will receive payments for roughly 33,251 uninfected trees cut as a purported preventative measure.

Per calculation, each homeowner is to receive approximately $565 per tree before deducting individual setoffs such as those who used the “Shade Florida” program or took any prior money for damages.

Bases on analysis and preliminary calculations, some 6,100 eligible Lee County homeowners will receive payments exceeding $1,000; roughly 3,3000 will receive payments ranging from $501 to $1,000; 2,200 will receive payments ranging from $251 to $500 and approximately 30 homeowners will receive payments of $250 or less.

All final numbers are based on Judge Kyle’s decision. Gilbert said he hopes to have checks in the mail in time for Christmas.

“It means a lot to me, and there’s a lot that needs to be done to make that happen but we’re bending over backwards to get it done,” Gilbert said.

Many of these long-overdue payouts could come at a convenient time for the countless that are struggling financially in 2020.

“It’s more important than ever (to get homeowners the money they deserve),” Gilbert said.

One challenge that Gilbert and his team are tasked with is finding the appropriate contacts for residents owed money going back nearly two decades. Some have moved, some have passed on, some can be difficult to track down.

Gilbert, who represents the Grossman Roth Yaffa Cohen law firm out of Fort Myers, said while the process was tedious, it was one that resulted in the right outcome.

“Yes, it took a long, long time, but justice prevailed,” Gilbert said. “The court system worked the way it was intended to. We were very fortunate to have Judge Kyle, who has done an extraordinary job overseeing the litigation, making difficult decisions and moving the process along.

“Homeowners whose constitutional rights were violated when the state took their private property now have justice served.”

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 Kyle directed the state to make the payments to the county.

The money was again left out of the budget in 2019 and finally added in 2020.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj