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Homeowners lose round against Florida in citrus canker fight

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Thousands of South Florida homeowners have struck out — again — in their fight to collect more than $27 million in compensation for the destruction of their fruit trees in the state’s fight against citrus canker.

The 4th District Court of Appeal ruled last week that the plaintiffs have to ask the state Legislature to appropriate the money to pay them, despite their victories in class-action lawsuits against the Florida Department of Agriculture in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

More than 865,000 residential trees were cut down in the fight against the disease, which blemishes fruit, causes premature fruit-drop and prevents exports to canker-free states.

After 11 years of work, with tree-cutting crews roaming South Florida neighborhoods, the department admitted defeat in 2006, saying the winds and rains of the previous year’s hurricanes had spread the disease too widely for it to be eradicated.

The trees at issue were cut down not because they had the disease but because each stood within 1,900 feet of an infected tree. That policy angered many homeowners, who said their property was destroyed in an effort to protect the agricultural industry.

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The court reversed an order by Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Robin Rosenberg that the state pay $19.2 million to about 40,000 homeowners. The court also declined to order the state to pay $8 million to 70,000 Broward County homeowners, saying they must first attempt to collect payment by means of a bill through the Legislature, the standard practice in claims awarded against the state.

“The Department of Agriculture is very pleased with the decision,” the agency’s attorney, Wes Parsons, said about the appellate court ruling. “We think it appropriately allows for the orderly administration of claims against the state of Florida.”

Robert C. Gilbert, lead counsel for the homeowners, said he and his team were studying the decision and deciding what steps to take. He called the ruling a “temporary setback.”

“If the Legislature does not appropriate the funds, I am confident the courts will ultimately see this issue our way and justice will prevail,” he said.

dfleshler@tribune.com


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