Must Florida pay for felled citrus trees?
Homeowners suing the state say its disease-prevention efforts destroyed thousands of healthy trees.
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Nancy LaVista, a West Palm Beach lawyer for the residents, told the jury that the state had no evidence that the destroyed trees were infected. "If they truly believed those trees were infected a new arc would be drawn at 1,900 feet," she said.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. LaVista said the trees must be valued as healthy trees at the time they were destroyed. "It's about money," she said. "It's about the state having to come up with money."
Robert Gilbert, a Coral Gables lawyer also representing the residents, urged the jury to assign an individual value for each destroyed tree. He presented a compensation matrix with values ranging from $20 for a 1-foot-tall tree to $930 for a 10-foot tree. Mr. Gilbert suggested the jurors make downward adjustments based on the condition of the tree and the tree's location.
Citrus canker is a bacterium that forms blotches on fruit and leaves, according to scientists. It is spread from tree to tree by wind-driven rain, they say. The disease can cause some fruit to drop early and can affect the productivity of a tree. But researchers say it does not destroy or degrade the food or juice value of the fruit, nor does it kill the tree.
Florida was largely canker-free until the 1990s when, agriculture officials believe, someone in Miami-Dade County planted an infected tree from South America. The initial eradication effort involved 125-foot-radius cut-down zones. But as canker continued to spread, the zone was increased to 1,900 feet, prompting outcries and lawsuits from residents.
Despite the massive cut-downs, the eradication effort failed and canker is now said to be widespread throughout Florida. The state stopped cutting down backyard citrus trees in January 2006.
Citrus is a $3.7 billion industry in Florida, second only to tourism. Despite the spread of canker, yields are up this year and there are 82 million trees in commercial groves now – 17 million more than during the six-year backyard eradication effort.
Parsons, the Department of Agriculture's lawyer, painted a grim picture for the jurors of a citrus industry being ravaged by canker and two other diseases. "The prognosis for citrus in Florida is poor," he said. "Trees are dying."
"Citrus is part of the heritage of Florida. It is part of our food supply. It is a vital part of Florida's economy," he said. "It must be protected and was protected by the Department of Agriculture."
Gilbert urged the jurors to focus on awarding full compensation. He held up a half-gallon carton of orange juice in one hand and a half-pint carton in the other. "If the government takes this [half gallon] from you," he said, "they can't replace it with this [half pint]."
He said the state constitution guarantees full compensation when the government takes private property for public use.
"They took [the residents'] property and now they have to pay the bill to keep this guarantee sacred," he said.