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

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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. …