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In 2002, Tavo Castro, with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services uses a chainsaw to cut down an orange tree infected with the citrus canker bacteria on Welllington Court in Cape Coral. A crew of FDA workers cut down 13 trees on the street. The state Department of Agriculture is liable for taking and destroying Lee County residents’ healthy citrus trees in an attempt to eradicate citrus canker disease, and a jury trial will decide how much more compensation residents are entitled to, a 20th Circuit Court judge ruled Friday
In 2002, Tavo Castro, with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services uses a chainsaw to cut down an orange tree infected with the citrus canker bacteria on Welllington Court in Cape Coral. A crew of FDA workers cut down 13 trees on the street. The state Department of Agriculture is liable for taking and destroying Lee County residents’ healthy citrus trees in an attempt to eradicate citrus canker disease, and a jury trial will decide how much more compensation residents are entitled to, a 20th Circuit Court judge ruled Friday / news-press.com file photo

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The Florida Department of Agriculture is liable for taking and destroying Lee County residents’ healthy citrus trees in an attempt to eradicate canker disease, and a jury trial will decide how much more compensation residents are entitled to, a 20th Circuit Court judge ruled Friday.

Judge Keith Kyle took a week to weigh arguments presented in a class-action lawsuit brought against the state on behalf of residents of 11,700 Lee homes, claiming the state cut down about 33,000 of their healthy trees in a failed effort to stop the disease’s spread. The eradication program ran from August 2002 to January 2006.

Initially, the state had offered $100 gift cards to Walmart in compensation for the first tree cut, followed by $55 checks for additional trees. The state issued about $45 million in checks and vouchers.

The Lee plaintiffs argued that wasn’t enough, and the judge agreed.

“It is up to the jury to determine what compensation Plaintiffs and the Class are entitled to recover as a result of the Department’s destruction of their citrus trees from their residential yards,” the ruling said.

“We are extremely gratified, extremely pleased and looking very much to moving forward to the next chapter and allowing a jury of 12 citizens in Lee County to decide how much the 33,000 trees were worth at the time they were taken,” said Robert C. Gilbert, the plaintiffs’ attorney.

He and his clients believe the average value is about $150 per tree, Gilbert said. “If a jury were to agree with us, that would be in my view, a very, very just verdict.” At $150, 33,000 trees would add up to $4.95 million.

“We weren’t surprised,” said Lois Stroh of Cape Coral, who with her husband Chuck are plaintiffs. “We figured all along he’d rule in favor of the homeowners. It was the right thing to do.”

Citrus canker is a contagious disease that weakens trees and blemishes fruit. The peel is scarred, making the fruit less attractive and marketable. The fruit is still used for juice. The disease has appeared sporadically over the years in Southwest Florida.

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Gilbert had argued the agriculture department destroyed residential trees in an effort to protect Florida’s commercial citrus industry, essentially sacrificing the interests of residents to help big business.

Not true, said Wes Parsons, attorney for the Department of Agriculture. The state was trying to protect all citrus trees, whether they stood in a commercial or residential grove, he said.

Southwest Florida claims about 100,000 acres of citrus, and provides about 25 percent of the state's total production. The region's agribusinesses has an estimated $1 billion in annual sales.

No date for the jury trial has been set, but Gilbert expects to file a motion next week so parties can hold a status conference. “We need to appear in front of Judge Kyle and ask him to schedule it at the earliest possible time,” he said.

Two previous lawsuits on behalf of homeowners in Palm Beach and Broward counties resulted in more than $27 million in judgments. The agriculture department has refused to pay them, saying plaintiffs must petition the Legislature for the money.

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