State Politics

Will legislators finally pay homeowners for citrus trees cut down during canker scare?

A work crew mulches a citrus plant in Hialeah in 1997, the early stages of South Florida’s canker war.
A work crew mulches a citrus plant in Hialeah in 1997, the early stages of South Florida’s canker war. El Nuevo Herald

Florida homeowners who lost their beloved citrus trees to the failed canker eradication program 17 years ago could be compensated this year under a $100 million budget request being filed this week by a Miami lawmaker.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz wants the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) to make good on four court rulings ordering the state to pay more than 114,000 homeowners in Broward, Palm Beach, Lee and Orange counties whose citrus trees were cut down between 2000 and 2006 to curb the spread of citrus canker.

State agriculture inspectors deployed crews with chain saws to chop down 577,253 orange, grapefruit and key lime trees throughout the state — even if the trees showed no signs of infection.

Outraged property owners representing counties with 94 percent of the lost trees joined five class action lawsuits to seek compensation. In four of the cases, the court ordered the state to pay more than $100 million in judgments, attorneys fees and interest. The fifth case, involving Miami-Dade residents who lost 40 percent of the healthy trees removed in Florida, is still pending.

The budget request filed by Diaz — and a similar one expected to be filed in the Senate by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami — is likely the largest member project to be filed this session in the House. Under new House rules, every budget request made by individual members must be filed and voted on as a separate bill.

Diaz, who chairs the powerful House Commerce Committee, said it is time for the state to compensate Floridians “whose property was illegally taken through no fault of their own.”

“Anyone who was in Florida for the citrus canker scare knows of someone who had their property taken away and who never received a dime for it,” he told the Herald/Times. “There are tens of thousands of Floridians who were stripped of their citrus trees and are still wondering why the state has not made them whole.”

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the House is reviewing the budget request and may have to consider dipping into trust funds to find the money.

“We will review it, but taking it from straight general revenue, it would be very, very difficult,” he said. There are agriculture-related trust funds, he said, that may hold money “and we could review those to see if they are appropriate.”

Lawyers for the Department of Agriculture, and Commissioner Adam Putnam, have argued in court against paying homeowners for the lost trees, contending that trees exposed to canker were a public nuisance and their removal is not a taking that should be compensated by the state.

But the juries and appeals court judges disagreed. Plaintiffs sued for a total of about $300 million to compensate for their lost trees, and courts have ordered to state to pay more than $94.8 million through November 2016, including $7.3 million in attorneys fees, DACS told the Senate Appropriations Committee in December. The amount owed grows monthly as interest fees accrue.

The original lawsuit was brought in 2000 in Broward County, where 133,720 canker-exposed trees were cut down and 58,225 homeowners were affected. The plaintiffs were seeking $430 per tree but were awarded about $32 per tree and, with expenses, interest and attorneys fees, the total award was about $16.3 million, the DACS report said.

Juries awarded $213 per tree in Palm Beach County, $234 per tree in Lee County, and $321 per tree in Orange County. In Miami-Dade County, which had 249,000 trees removed, a trial was held in May, and the judge has not yet ruled.

An appeals court said in May that if the state doesn’t pay in the four completed cases, the plaintiffs could challenge the constitutionality of the statute that calls for filing a claims bill to receive payment from a judgment in a lawsuit. And the court could enforce the Florida Constitution, which provides for full compensation to an owner whose property is taken by the state.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chair of the Senate budget committee, asked a DACS lawyer if it was the agency’s legal strategy to delay a resolution long enough to get the Florida Supreme Court to overturn the lower court rulings.

Wesley Parsons, the Miami trial attorney who has been handling the state’s defense in the class action lawsuits, responded that it doesn’t make sense to move forward on payments to all homeowners until the Miami-Dade County case is complete.

“Dade County is the most important but, sadly, the last to be ticking,” he said. He noted that several counties — such as St. Lucie, Hillsborough, Manatee, Brevard, Sarasota, Hendry and Monroe — also had trees removed but were not involved in a class action lawsuit.

Trevor Smith, director of the division of plant industry for DACS, told the Senate committee that the state succeeded in eradicating canker in 1915 and 1992, but the disease returned in 1995 and the Legislature approved the eradication program.

Homeowners whose trees were cut down, often without warning, were supposed to be given a $100 debit card to a Wal-Mart garden center for the first tree removed from their property and $55 in cash for every other under a $50 million canker eradication compensation program. But homeowners complained that healthy trees were removed and they often never saw any of that money.

Homeowners took the state to court, persuaded judges to issue injunctions and effectively stalled the eradication program between 2000 and 2004.

The Florida Department of Agriculture now blames that delay on the spread of canker to some 200,000 additional trees, a problem that was accelerated when four hurricanes blew through the state.

The Florida Supreme Court upheld the eradication program in 2004 and the agency resumed tree removal, but the problem was so extensive that by 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture withdrew its funding of the eradication program because it was deemed unsuccessful.

“There’s no cure for canker and the only method of control is removing the tree,” Smith of DACS told the Senate committee. The canker outbreak cost the Florida citrus industry $194 million in economic losses, he said.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Republican egg farmer from Trilby, warned that he is not likely to support much of the payments to homeowners. He told the Senate committee that he considers Broward County’s lawsuit “part of this problem” because the injunction ordered by the judge delayed the eradication program in the early 2000s.

“Because they created probably the vast majority of this problem maybe we should get them to pay for most of it,” Simpson said.