Lee homeowners' lawsuit against state over citrus canker goes to judge next week

Typical citrus canker symptoms on leaves, stems and fruit of grapefruit.

Courtesy Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Typical citrus canker symptoms on leaves, stems and fruit of grapefruit.

Orange tree

Photo by Jupiterimages

Orange tree

The state offered $100 Wal-Mart gift cards to homeowners for the first tree cut, which could be used only at the garden center, and that was followed by $55 checks for additional trees. That's the only money homeowners in Lee got and many never used their gift cards before they expired, according to testimony at the trial.

— As a legal battle for arboreal justice winds down in Lee County, the state reached as far as Brazil for expert testimony on the last day of a trial over destroyed backyard citrus trees.

"We're pleased to be able to tell our story, and the science behind it," said Wes Parsons, attorney for the Florida Department of Agriculture.

The nearly decade-long lawsuit is over roughly 34,000 citrus trees the state cut down on more than 11,800 properties, primarily in Cape Coral, arguing that they had been exposed to citrus canker.

Agricultural experts on Friday wrapped up their testimony before a judge in a Lee County courtroom, including two scientists who were part of the decision-making process in the canker eradication program, as well as a deposition from a citrus expert in Brazil.

If the judge sides with homeowners, a jury trial then will establish compensation in the case. According to an attorney for homeowners, the trees were valued at $17 million.

"Nobody is standing up and saying we're definitely winning this," said Robert Gilbert, the Coral Gables attorney who represents the homeowners, on Friday after the experts testified for the Department of Agriculture. "We think the facts and the evidence support our decision. And we hope the court sees it this way."

Closing arguments in the case are slated for Thursday, after which Lee Circuit Judge Keith Kyle will rule on whether compensation will be allowed for the trees. Closing arguments will be in his courtroom Thursday, though neither Parsons nor Gilbert expect the judge to immediately rule.

The Lee class-action lawsuit is one of several around the state.

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