In Florida, a bitter fight over cutting down orange trees

A state court is ruling on a compensation plan that residents argue undervalues trees destroyed to stop a citrus canker.

How much is a backyard orange tree worth?

Seems like a simple enough question. But depending on how judges and juries in Florida determine the answer, it could end up costing state taxpayers anywhere from several hundred million dollars to perhaps more than a billion dollars.

That's what lawyers are estimating the price tag may be for the state's emergency citrus disease eradication program - which since 1995 has authorized the destruction of more than 635,000 privately owned backyard orange and grapefruit trees in southeast Florida.

The trees were destroyed in an effort to protect the state's commercial citrus groves from an outbreak of bacteria called citrus canker. Whenever a diseased tree was located, the state cut down every citrus tree - whether diseased or not - within 260 acres of the diseased one. Homeowners upset over the tactics sued the state, claiming the chainsaw-wielding crews, who often arrived unannounced in their yards, were violating their rights.

The issue is shaping up into a major constitutional showdown that pits the rights of private property owners against government efforts to protect an industry crucial to the state's economy.

Last week, Florida's Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision saying the eradication program did not violate either the US or Florida constitutions. But 19 pages into its decision, the high court dropped a bombshell.

"When the state destroys private property, the state is obligated to pay just and fair compensation as determined in a court of law," wrote Justice Barbara Pariente for the court.

The state legislature had authorized payment to homeowners of $100 for the first tree destroyed and $55 for each subsequent one. But Florida's highest court said those payments only establish a floor for compensation, not an upper limit.

'Just compensation'

Whenever the government takes private property for public use, the US Constitution requires "just compensation" be paid to the owner. The Florida Constitution has a similar provision, requiring "full compensation" - not just some compensation.

Which leads to what could become the billion-dollar question: What is the "full" value of a nondiseased backyard citrus tree?

"Our experts say the average will be between $750 and $1,250 [per tree]," says Robert Gilbert, a Coral Gables lawyer representing homeowners in a class-action suit seeking full compensation for their lost trees. If Mr. Gilbert's consultants are correct, such a compensation package would cost the state between $476 million and $794 million.

And that's only if the state refuses to touch another residential citrus tree. In the wake of the ruling last week, state agriculture officials said they intend to cut quickly as many as 200,000 more backyard trees.

According to Gilbert's consultants, that could add $150 million to $250 million in additional claims, potentially pushing the price tag over the billion-dollar mark.

Will compensation costs force the state to reconsider the economics of its eradication program?

"One would have hoped that our government leaders would have taken that into consideration before they embarked on this program," Gilbert says.

Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, says the courts may deem the $100 and $55 offers to be constitutionally adequate. He says the US government pays compensation of $55 per tree to citrus grove owners who lose trees in the canker eradication effort. "That is what they pay people who make a living from their trees," he says.

Under that program, every tree within 1,900 feet of a diseased tree is destroyed - which means the government is paying $55 for every tree in a 260-acre area of a densely planted citrus grove. Analysts say that works out to roughly $10,000 per acre or a payment of $2.6 million total.

In contrast, most homeowners have one, two, or three trees. And many feel a personal attachment to their trees.

"I have a 15-foot grapefruit tree out there [in the backyard] that is irreplaceable," says Fort Lauderdale resident John Haire. "I value it at $5,000."

While class-action lawsuits have already been authorized in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the state has convinced a judge in Palm Beach County that homeowners should fight for compensation individually rather than banding together.

Boca Raton lawyer Barry Silver is representing many Palm Beach County residents in the fight. He says the state knows that if each resident is required to hire and pay a lawyer, many will simply give up. "They want to make it as onerous as possible for people to exert their constitutional rights," Mr. Silver says.

The Florida Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling dealing directly with the compensation issue. That ruling could come at any time, and perhaps as early as Thursday, legal analysts say.

A struggling industry

In the meantime, Florida's $9 billion citrus industry is struggling in the face of a 3 percent drop in orange juice sales last year. Much of the decrease is believed tied to so-called low-carb diets that discourage consumption of orange juice.

At the same time, growers anticipate a record crop this season - a development that will likely depress prices and cut into already thin profit margins at Florida's groves, says Casey Pace of Florida Citrus Mutual, a growers' association.

Ms. Pace says a study by the association found that it would cost citrus growers $342 million a year to live with citrus canker should the state's eradication effort fail. "You add $342 million in cost," Pace says, "and you will see a lot of people going out of business."

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