Goodman: Florida’s ‘war on citrus canker’ continues bearing bitter fruit

This 2000 file photo shows crews removing citrus trees in Boca Raton.

It seems hard to believe, but 10 years after the state cut down millions of healthy trees in a hapless effort to halt citrus canker disease, lots of Floridians still haven’t been reimbursed for the loss of their beloved fruit-bearing trees.

And Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t made it any easier. This month, he vetoed $37.4 million intended to compensate residents of Broward and Lee counties after years of litigation about the removal of trees around the state. The money was to be part of the 2017-18 budget recently approved by the Legislature.

On Tuesday, homeowners and their lawyers asked the Florida Supreme Court to overturn Scott’s decision, calling it unconstitutional. The veto “undermines the state’s constitutional obligation to pay full compensation for the taking of private property,” the lawsuit argues.

Folks in Broward and Lee counties aren’t the only ones waiting for overdue payments. Palm Beach County homeowners are to get $28.4 million and Orange County residents are due $35.7 million. Those sums — awarded by juries in lawsuits against the state — haven’t yet been allocated by the Legislature.

And so an unpopular — and unsuccessful — “war on canker” keeps on making people unhappy.

From 1995 to 2006, homeowners winced and protested as state and federal workers put chainsaws to their healthy trees. They removed 16.5 million from backyards and citrus groves — almost 75,000 from Palm Beach County backyards alone — to stop the fruit-blemishing disease. The campaign, said to be the largest such eradication effort ever seen, cost a ridiculous $875 million. Litigation and claims have pushed that number past $1.6 billion.

What makes it harder to swallow: It was all for nothing. As my colleague Susan Salisbury has explained:

The program was based on a flawed “1,900-foot rule” that called for removing every tree within a 1,900-foot radius of an infected tree. The theory was that 95 percent of transmissions from a diseased tree to a healthy tree occur within 1,900 feet.

Of course, that left 5 percent of bacterium at large. Unbelievably, the rule that became a law in 2002 didn’t account for the role hurricanes or even tropical storms would play in the disease that those same scientists said was spread by wind-borne rain. The wicked 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons spread the canker so far and wide that it was impossible to eradicate.

 

UPDATE 9:45 a.m. THURSDAY:

The Florida Supreme Court wants a quick response from Gov. Scott about his veto. It has given him until noon Monday to respond to the lawsuit from Broward and Lee county homeowners and attorneys.