In Florida, a revolt against the citrus police

One of the great benefits of living in south Florida is the ability to enjoy fresh-picked grapefruit and oranges from a backyard tree for breakfast every morning.

But this luxury may soon be a relic of the past if Florida courts uphold an aggressive effort by state agriculture officials to control an outbreak of citrus canker disease by destroying backyard citrus trees.

The legal battle pits homeowners seeking to protect their much-beloved source of fresh fruit and shade against state officials seeking to protect Florida's $9 billion citrus industry – second only to tourism.

Both sides are headed for a showdown at the state's highest court, which will determine the extent to which Floridians have a constitutional right to grow citrus in their own backyards.

More than 603,000 backyard citrus trees have already been destroyed, and residents are complaining about what they say are Gestapo-like tactics employed by chainsaw-wielding work crews sometimes escorted onto private property by sheriff's deputies. Some Floridians have taken to calling them "fruit Nazis."

"They came with two sheriff's deputies. They said if you don't step aside we will handcuff you and take you to jail," says John Haire, of Fort Lauderdale, one of several residents challenging the eradication program in court.

A souring electorate?

The stakes aren't just legal and economic. The issue could complicate Governor Jeb Bush's reelection bid later this year, according to some analysts. Mr. Bush has been an outspoken supporter of the program.

"There are 250,000 people affected by this. Surely 10 percent of them are really mad, so we are talking about 25,000 people who probably aren't going to vote for Jeb Bush," says John Haire.

At issue is a Florida Department of Agriculture effort to eradicate the disease before it spreads to the state's major groves in central Florida.The bacteria has already been detected in 12 counties. Citrus industry officials warn that if Florida growers lose the ability to certify their product as canker-free, Florida citrus export markets may disappear, and the US will lose the power to bar imports of citrus from canker-infested countries.

"We estimate the annual impact of living with canker at $343 million a year," says Ken Keck of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest citrus growers' association. Canker causes brown and yellow blotches on citrus leaves and fruit rind, according to experts. It is spread primarily by wind-driven rain. It poses no threat to human health, nor does it damage the taste or quality of the fruit - other than its outward appearance, these experts say.

A scientific debate

Industry officials stress that canker can cause fruit to fall from trees prematurely and that eventually it can cause a tree to stop producing fruit.

Critics of the state's eradication program dispute this. They say the canker threat has been hyped by state and industry officials who are using an unfounded fear of canker to boost the profitability of Florida citrus.

"The science is pretty clear that this is an unimportant disease," says Jack Whiteside, a retired citrus researcher. "It can be very easily controlled by some of the spray measures that we are already conducting for some of the other blemishing diseases."

Liz Compton, an agriculture department spokesperson, says most citrus scientists support the state's eradication program. "Letting the disease spread is not an option, there is too much at stake," she says.

State officials say the most effective way to eliminate the disease is to cut down and destroy every citrus tree within a certain radius of a discovered diseased tree. In addition to the 603,000 backyard trees, some 1.5 million commercial grove trees have been destroyed.

What has many Florida residents questioning the state's program is the large number of healthy citrus trees being destroyed. For many years during prior canker outbreaks, state regulations required the destruction of all citrus trees within 125 feet of a known diseased tree. In 2000, the destruction zone was expanded to 1,900 feet, vastly increasing the number of apparently healthy trees to be destroyed during eradication campaigns.

The zone was expanded after a study showed that 95 percent of transmissions from a diseased tree to a healthy tree occur within 1,900 feet of the diseased tree. But when the 1,900-foot rule failed to quickly bring the south Florida outbreak under control, some residents began to object to the state's strategy.

Many are also demanding that the state pay fair compensation for the healthy backyard citrus trees being destroyed. They cite provisions in both the US and Florida Constitutions requiring that just compensation be paid whenever private property is taken for public use.

The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to decide the issue, but no date has yet been set for oral argument.

Ample compensation

In 1990, Florida's highest court ruled that the owners of healthy citrus trees within the 125-foot zone were not entitled to compensation for their destroyed trees. But the high court ordered compensation for trees the state destroyed outside the 125-foot zone.

Florida officials say that no compensation is owed to backyard citrus tree owners because the state is under an agricultural emergency. The just compensation clauses of both constitutions do not apply when the state destroys private property to protect the public from imminent danger during an emergency.

A key issue in the case will be to what extent healthy citrus trees slated for destruction within the 1,900-foot zone may be reasonably characterized as a source of "imminent public danger."

There is no doubt that a diseased citrus tree would qualify as a source of imminent public danger. If the court rules some of the healthy trees within the 1,900-foot zone do not pose such a danger, the state may face compensation claims for some 330,000 healthy backyard trees that have been destroyed.

On the other hand, if the court sides with state agriculture officials, it will likely mean the end of backyard-fresh grapefruit breakfasts in these parts for many years to come.

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