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Nikki Fried looks to lawmakers for citrus tree payments

Fried wants homeowners reimbursed for their lost trees, but lawmakers must act.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s department says it wants to pay millions of dollars to Lee County homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were cut down as the state tried to thwart citrus-canker disease.

But first, the Legislature has to fork over the money.

That was a key argument Friday by attorneys for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as they asked the state Supreme Court to overturn a decision that ordered the department to compensate the homeowners.

In a 75-page brief, the department said it doesn’t have the legal power to pay the homeowners without lawmakers including the money in the state budget — as they did in 2018 for property owners in two other counties.

“The department wishes to pay the judgments, but, lacking an appropriation, has no lawful way to do so,” the brief said. “If the Legislature appropriates funds to pay the judgments, the department will quickly pay the judgments, as it has done in two related lawsuits in Broward County and Palm Beach County.”

The brief is the latest move in a nearly two decades of litigation about whether the state should compensate residents for destroying healthy citrus trees. Fried’s department went to the Supreme Court last month after the 2nd District Court of Appeal ordered the state to pay more than $13.6 million to the Lee County homeowners.

A panel of the appeals court in November rejected the department’s contention that it could not pay the homeowners because the Legislature had not approved the money. It said that sections of state law cited by the department were unconstitutional “as applied” to the case.

The appeals court reached that conclusion because of part of the Florida Constitution that bars the government from taking property without paying full compensation. In doing so, the appeals court upheld a ruling by a Lee County circuit judge.

“(As) noted by the Lee homeowners, the underlying principle behind the Takings Clause (of the Constitution) is that the government is not immune from the obligation to pay full compensation when it takes and destroys private property. … (The) department takes the position that it will make no payment of the final judgments absent specific legislative appropriation; that it has no obligation to take any action to secure such an appropriation; and that it is up to the Legislature to decide whether to make an appropriation. We agree with the trial court that these statutes, as applied here, are contrary to the Takings Clause,” the appeals court ruled.

But in the brief Friday, the department cited a 2017 decision by then-Gov. Rick Scott to veto money that would have gone to Lee County homeowners and decisions by lawmakers in 2018 and 2019 to leave the money out of the state budget. Fried’s attorneys said she is seeking money again during the current legislative session to make the payments.

The class-action lawsuit was filed against the department in 2003 for taking 33,957 healthy citrus trees on 11,811 residential properties, according to the appeals-court decision. 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 hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.

Lawmakers in 2017 approved spending $37.4 million to compensate the Lee County homeowners and Broward County property owners who had filed a similar lawsuit. But Scott vetoed the money, citing “ongoing litigation” as the reason.

That led the Lee County homeowners to go back to circuit court, where Judge Keith Kyle ruled based on the Constitution’s Takings Clause and directed the state to make the payments.

The brief filed Friday said lawmakers agreed in 2018 to spend $52 million to resolve the Broward and Palm Beach cases but did not include Lee County. The brief indicated Fried is seeking a total of $61 million this year for the Lee County case and to pay similar judgments in Orange County.

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