Florida to pay $11.5 million for cutting citrus trees

The jury verdict comes in the first of five lawsuits seeking compensation for backyard trees destroyed in disease-prevention efforts.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A south Florida jury has ordered the State of Florida to pay $11.5 million as compensation to 58,225 residents of Broward County after the state cut down all the citrus trees in their yards in a disease-prevention effort.

The verdict, announced Tuesday evening, was significantly lower than lawyers for the homeowners had requested. Several homeowners disagreed with the size of the award and lawyers for both sides suggest they may appeal.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Robert Gilbert, a Coral Gables lawyer, representing the homeowners.

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"This case from Day 1 has been about the constitutional guarantee of full compensation when private property is taken for a public purpose," he said. "What happened here is nothing less than a chipping away at a fundamental guarantee in the Constitution."

On a per tree basis, the award is $86 per tree for the 133,720 trees destroyed in Broward County as part of an emergency effort to insulate the state's commercial citrus industry from an outbreak of citrus canker disease.

State agriculture officials pursued the controversial eradication policy from January 2000 to January 2006 after canker disease was detected in a residential neighborhood in Miami-Dade County.

State work crews confronted residents with court orders and chain saws, sparking an outcry by Floridians who treasure their backyard citrus trees and the fruit they produce.

The homeowners had asked the 12-member jury to pay full compensation ranging from $280 for a healthy six-foot tree to $930 for a healthy 10-foot tree.

But state officials said during the three-week trial that the real value of the trees was zero since they had been exposed to the citrus canker disease.

During two days of deliberations, the jury split on the issue of full compensation. Some jurors sided with the state, feeling that since the trees were exposed to canker they were worthless because eventually they would develop the disease. But others felt homeowners were due compensation because their trees were healthy at the time they were destroyed.

The $11.5 million verdict was a compromise , according to some jurors.

When offset against payments already made to homeowners who lost trees, the award amounts to an extra $4.4 million – or roughly $34 more per tree.

The jury verdict comes in the first of five class-action lawsuits in Florida seeking compensation for more than 577,000 backyard citrus trees destroyed in the state's citrus canker eradication program.

Similar class-action lawsuits are pending in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Lee, and Orange Counties.

Mr. Gilbert said the state Department of Agriculture is the losing party in the suit and it is up to them to appeal. But he said he expects to file a cross-appeal challenging a trial court ruling that permitted the state to present evidence that healthy citrus trees cut down in Broward County would have inevitably contracted the canker disease.

The lawyer said full compensation must be based on the value of private property at the time of seizure, not on speculation about future value. To the extent that the jury considered the future value of the citrus trees, he said, the verdict is invalid.

Fort Lauderdale resident John Haire has played a major role in fighting the state's canker eradication program. He took his battle to save his 10 backyard citrus trees to Florida's Supreme Court and won a decision that set the stage for the Fort Lauderdale trial.

Mr. Haire says that despite warnings by the state's scientific experts, his 10 trees were not destroyed. His trees survived the six-year eradication program canker-free, even though they were within a designated canker eradication zone.

Haire says he believes the jurors were confused about the proper standard to award full compensation. He says the government "got off very light."

"I feel they need to be punished," Haire said of the state Department of Agriculture. "They need to be shown a lesson that they can't do this."

Aside from the potential payout from the state treasury, the case is important legally because it is defining the scope of the so-called takings clause of Florida's constitution. The clause mandates that private property shall not be taken for a public purpose unless full compensation is paid.

The clause echoes a similar provision in the US Constitution's Fifth Amendment. The underlying principle is that the government can't force a few residents to shoulder the burden of a policy designed to benefit the public.

Tuesday's jury verdict came after a three-week trial to determine the amount of full compensation for residents who lost their trees.

In February, Circuit Judge Ronald Rothschild ruled that the state's backyard citrus eradication program was an attempt by Florida officials to sacrifice home-grown citrus trees to protect Florida's citrus industry. At the time there were an estimated 65 million citrus trees in Florida's commercial groves.

"The Department acted in good faith under a mistaken belief that eradication would save the commercial citrus industry," Judge Rothschild wrote in his February decision.

But he said the action amounted to a "compensable taking" under the Florida constitution because most of the destroyed backyard trees were perfectly healthy.

Citrus canker can form blotches on fruit and leaves, but it does not destroy the food or juice value of the fruit, experts say. State and industry experts say the disease could reduce the value of Florida's commercial citrus crop and shorten the productive life of its groves.

In earlier outbreaks during the 1990s, the state imposed a 125-foot eradication zone around any citrus tree found to contain the canker bacteria. But in 2000, state officials increased the size of the zone to 1,900 feet.

All citrus trees found within the expanded zone were branded as "exposed" and slated for destruction, even though the vast majority of them showed no evidence of the canker.

Florida agriculture officials had justified the eradication program by saying that they were working under the state's police powers to fight a public nuisance. The state also argued that repeated court injunctions halting the eradication program hindered state efforts and allowed the disease to spread.

Judge Rothschild rejected both arguments, saying the backyard trees did not pose a threat to public health and did not qualify as a nuisance. He added that the eradication program would not have succeeded irrespective of any injunction.

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