By MIKE SCHNEIDER Associated Press
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Sixteen years after their legal battle began, about 18,000 homeowners in central Florida will be paid more than $42 million collectively by the state of Florida for destroying their citrus trees during an effort to eradicate a harmful citrus disease.
The homeowners in Orange County will receive about $700 per healthy tree destroyed as part of an order issued in state court in Orlando last month. A judgment from a 2014 trial assessed the value of each healthy tree as $344, but fees and interests over the years doubled the per-tree payment.
More than 60,000 healthy, uninfected trees were destroyed in Orange County between 2002 and 2006 as part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ efforts to eradicate citrus canker, according to the lawsuit.
While unharmful to humans, citrus canker can cause the leaves and fruit of citrus trees to drop prematurely and create unappealing lesions on the fruit. The lesions leak bacterial cells that can spread to other trees by wind, rain or contaminated equipment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services had argued that the homeowners’ trees were a public nuisance and didn’t have value worth compensating. Under the program, healthy trees that were within 1900 feet (580 meters) of an infected tree were destroyed in an effort to stop the disease’s spread.
As compensation, the state in the 2000s offered Florida homeowners $100 Walmart gift cards for their first destroyed tree and $55 for each additional tree. In cases where homeowners resisted, authorities threatened arrest or obtained warrants to go onto private property and destroy trees.
The Florida Legislature approved payments for the Orange County homeowners last year. A third-party administrator will distribute the checks and track down homeowners whose addresses are no longer current.
Tens of thousands of homeowners in Broward, Lee and Palm Beach counties won class action lawsuits against the state over their destroyed trees, and compensations varied by county. A case in Miami-Dade County is still pending.