2017-05-17 / Top News

12,000 Lee County households could share $16.5 million for 34,000 lost citrus trees

About 12,000 Lee County households could share in a $16.5 million payout approved last week by the state Legislature to compensate homeowners whose fruit trees were destroyed to stop the spread of a disease called citrus canker.

Republican budget negotiators in the House and Senate agreed on full payment on a lawsuit won nine years ago by homeowners seeking full compensation for orange, lime, lemon and grapefruit trees cut down by crews hired by the Florida Department of Agriculture.

The funds were included in the state budget. At press time, Gov. Rick Scott had not signed the measure.

In 2000, the agriculture department destroyed over 130,000 healthy, uninfected residential citrus trees in Broward County — including three trees at the home of Toby and Bob Bogorff in Davie — as part of its failed effort to eradicate citrus canker. The Bogorffs, joined by several other Broward homeowners, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 58,000 families against the department and its commissioner to recover full compensation under the Florida constitution for the destruction of their private property. In 2008, a Broward County jury awarded $11.5 million in compensation to the Broward homeowners. The department’s appeals dragged on until 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined the department’s request to review the judgment.

In 2003, a similar legal battle took shape in Lee County, where the department destroyed nearly 34,000 healthy, uninfected residential citrus trees owned by Lee County families. Lois and Chuck Stroh, Cape Coral homeowners, joined by several others, sued the department seeking full compensation on behalf of approximately 12,000 Lee County residents. In 2014, a Lee County jury awarded $13.6 million in compensation to the Lee homeowners. The department’s appeal was rejected in early 2016.

GILBERT GILBERT On May 8, the Legislature approved the state’s 2017-18 budget, including $37.4 million to pay the amounts due under the judgments awarded to the Broward and Lee County homeowners. The Legislature did not include funds to pay judgments awarded to Orange and Palm Beach County homeowners.

“When we began this legal journey in 2000, I never imagined it would take nearly 17 years to enforce basic constitutional rights guaranteed to everyone under the Florida constitution,” said Bobby Gilbert, lead counsel for the homeowners, in a prepared statement. “But the Department of Agriculture turned this into what may be the longest running litigation in Florida history.”

“We anticipate distributing the funds to eligible homeowners in Broward and Lee counties later this year,” Mr. Gilbert said. “We will now focus our efforts on collecting the full amounts due to homeowners in Orange and Palm Beach counties under the judgments awarded to them. We are extremely confident we will collect the full amounts due with the help of the courts and the Legislature.”

“We also look forward to completing the class action lawsuit we brought on behalf of Miami-Dade County homeowners whose 247,972 healthy, uninfected citrus trees were destroyed by the department,” Mr. Gilbert said. “We again urge Commissioner Putnam to resolve the claims of the Miami-Dade homeowners without further delay. Unless a settlement is reached by June 6, Miami- Dade Circuit Judge Thomas Rebull will issue a liability ruling, setting the stage for a jury trial later this year to determine the amount of compensation due to the Miami-Dade County homeowners.”

After the trees had been destroyed, Mr. Gilbert had said that nearly 60 percent of the trees destroyed by the state were in Cape Coral. About 5 percent were in Fort Myers. About 4,000 properties had only one tree destroyed. About 341 parcels had five trees destroyed.

A handful of properties — less than 1 percent — had 15 trees destroyed. The average height of a tree taken was 10 feet, he reported then.

In addition to Mr. Gilbert, the homeowners are represented by a team of prominent South Florida lawyers, including Bruce S. Rogow, William S. Williams, Joseph H. Serota, Neal A. Roth and J. Alex Villalobos. ¦

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