State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has been ordered to compensate southwest Florida homeowners who lost citrus trees as part of the state’s citrus eradication program or be held in contempt of court. That’s the order handed down by Lee County Circuit Court Judge Keith Kyle in a case involving 12,000 homeowners who lost nearly 34,000 citrus trees in an effort by the state to eradicate the spread of canker.
A spokeswoman for Putnam says he will appeal the decision.
“We strongly disagree with this ruling and intend to appeal,” said Jennifer Meale, Putnam’s communications director. “Since 1997, the department has handled these cases in a manner consistent with Florida law, which has been supported by a Florida Supreme Court ruling. The lawful process for the payment of these judgments requires a legislative appropriation of the funds.
The total amount the state owes residents in Lee County totals nearly $17 million. Each day that goes by the interest on that money grows by $2,199.
“Commissioner Putnam essentially has done absolutely nothing to attempt to secure payment for the (homeowners) because he apparently has no obligation to do so, despite the finality of the instant judgments,” Kyle wrote in his order dated on March 20.
The state destroyed the healthy citrus trees in Lee County between 2000 and 2006.
The homeowners filed a lawsuit against the state 15 years ago and in 2014 a jury agreed with the claims made by the residents and awarded them compensation. The state appealed and lost.
But Putnam didn’t authorize payment the judgments for Lee County property owners, nor for suits in Broward, Orange and Palm Beach counties.
Last year, the Legislature included money in their budget plan to compensate the property owners, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the expenditure. The residents asked the Florida Supreme Court to overturn the governor’s veto, but the court directed them to take their case back to the lower court.
“The commandment to pay full compensation when the state takes private property for a public purpose has been enshrined in the Florida Constitution for more than 150 years,” Kyle wrote in his order.
This year, the Legislature included money in the budget to cover the lawsuits in Broward and Palm Beach counties. That has given the residents of Lee County optimism they might receive compensation in next year’s budget.
“As anyone knows and as is the case with Broward and Palm Beach counties and the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, the Legislature appropriates money for canker compensations to the executive branch,” Meale said. “We will efficiently pay judgements once the lawful process has been completed.”
Putnam, the front-runner in the Republican race for governor, faces the possibility of his opponents using the property rights issue against him in the primary. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis is the only other major candidate to announce their candidacy. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran is expected to announce his candidacy soon.