After spending years seeking compensation from the state, tens-of-thousands of South Florida homeowners who lost healthy citrus trees as part of the state’s citrus eradication program more than a decade ago are being told to take their case back to the lower courts.
That was the decision handed down Thursday by the Florida Supreme Court in a 6-1 ruling.
The ruling affects 70,036 homeowners in Broward and Lee counties who lost more than 167,000 healthy citrus trees between 2000 and 2006. The trees were removed as part of the state’s efforts to stop the spread of citrus canker.
After years of legal battles, the Legislature earlier this year set aside $37.3 million dollars to compensate the homeowners in the two counties.
But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the expenditure citing ongoing litigation in the matter.
The property owners joined five class-action lawsuits seeking compensation. Four of those cases have been resolved resulting in more than $100 million being awarded. But a case in Miami-Dade County has yet to be decided.
Scott’s attorneys argued that until the final case is resolved the state can not make any compensation payments.
Last month the homeowners asked the supreme court to reject the governor’s veto claiming the Florida Constitution requires the state compensate individuals for the taking of property.
But the court rejected that argument saying it could not invalidate a governor’s veto. The majority of the justices suggested the homeowners take their case back to the lower courts in an effort to win compensation.
Justice Fred Lewis was the long dissenting vote. In his opinion, Lewis was critical of the governor for his veto and of the court for placing the governor’s veto rights ahead of property rights.
“This is a sad day for Florida citizens with a majority and concurring opinion that refuse to protect the right of compensation for the massive government taking of property from Florida citizens,” Lewis wrote in his opinion. “The right to own private property and the corresponding right to receive full and complete compensation when private property is taken by a government is a foundational cornerstone of this democracy.”
A spokesman for Scott defended the governor’s action.
“It is unfortunate what happened to these Floridians over a decade ago and Governor Scott sincerely understands their concern,” said Communications Director John Tupps. “Due to ongoing litigation, the $37.4 million in the budget was not approved. We are hopeful that all litigation regarding this issue will be completely resolved, allowing the issue to be addressed comprehensively across the state.”