The Miami Herald

Florida still owes tree owners in canker scare

They came to be known as the “Gestapo lumberjacks,” state agricultural workers on a chainsaw massacre, bent on destroying backyard citrus trees.

Some 16.5 million commercial citrus trees were removed in Florida’s failed canker-disease campaign before it was abandoned in 2006, but it was the eradication of 600,000 apparently healthy backyard trees in that provoked so much popular outrage.

By 2000, the state’s hired tree cutters faced so much resentment, anger, insults, threats, not to mention the occasional gun-toting homeowner, that police officers were assigned to protect work crews.

Homeowners were compensated with $100 Walmart coupons, hardly enough to make up for the loss of beloved backyard orange and grapefruit trees. They sued.

A dozen years later, I was startled to find out that the homeowners are still in court, still fighting for adequate compensation for their long lost trees. “When I took this on, my oldest son was 10 years old,” said Robert Gilbert, lead counsel in the five separate county-by-county class-action suits against the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. His son has since graduated from college and could probably finish law school before this interminable case ends.

Not that the homeowners haven’t pummeled the state in court in cases that made it to trial. Last year, a jury in decided that the state should compensate 40,000 homeowners in Palm Beach County $12,211,704 for their zapped trees. In Broward, jurors said the state must pay an additional $90 each for the 133,720 healthy citrus trees destroyed in the canker campaign.

The ag department appealed, arguing that the trees, however healthy, were rendered worthless by the canker risk. The 4th District Court of Appeal smashed that argument into orange pulp. “There is evidence in the record that the healthy trees taken had continued to produce the fruit, the juice, the shade, the pleasing aromas, the agreeable vistas — all the virtues for which their owners carefully planted and tended them.”

The judges cited a lack of scientific evidence that the healthy trees were doomed. Then they got at the nub of the thing. “It is apparent from the history of this case that DACS destroyed these privately owned healthy trees not because they were really ‘imminently dangerous’ to anybody but instead to benefit the citrus industry in Florida.”

When homeowners made this same argument in 2000, it was dismissed as a conspiracy theory.

This was a clear case of “taking,” the judges ruled. A classic property-rights case. Which underscored the contradiction here. Protection of property rights has become a fundamental precept among conservatives. Yet three Republican governors and two Republican agricultural commissioners figured to buy off tree owners with Walmart coupons.

After 12 losing years in court, the state still refuses to pay up, now claiming that if homeowners want their money, they must beg state legislators to approve a claims bill. As if all that litigation was a meaningless exercise.

The claims bill question must now be decided by yet another appeals panel. Gilbert’s kid could be in and out of med school before homeowners finally get their due.

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