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Citrus tree fight begins to bear fruit

May 7, 2008
Judy Powers of Cape Coral tends to her garden near the spot where two of her six citrus trees were removed because of the threat of citrus canker. Powers and her husband had lime, lemon and sweet and sour orange trees in their yard. / Amanda Inscore/
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How much should Florida pay people like John Klockow, a Cape Coral resident whose citrus trees were cut down by the state in a failed attempt to contain citrus canker?

If a jury verdict in Broward County sets a precedent, then he and others sharing his plight may end up with more than a $100 coupon at Wal-Mart. After two days of deliberation, a Fort Lauderdale jury decided Tuesday the state should pay an additional $4.5 million to Broward County residents for having destroyed 133,000 trees there.

Klockow has followed the case closely because he is party to a similar Lee County case, and expects the verdict to set favorable precedent here.

“We expect the litigation to produce something much more fair, more than the state gave us,” said Klockow.

A Broward County judge already ruled the state must compensate residents for the destruction of their trees, concurring with a Palm Beach judge in a separate case.

Attorneys in the Broward suit had hoped a jury would demand every claimant receive at least $400, but the actual award provided a good bit less.

“That basically equates to about $34 a tree,” said Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Liz Compton. “We feel like this is a very good verdict.”

Nurseries typically sell immature citrus trees starting at $50, with grown trees costing in the hundreds.

Some plaintiffs in the Lee County suit are asking for up to $75,000 in compensation. While the Broward decision may not pave the way for such a lofty award, it does support the claim not enough was done for residents who saw healthy trees destroyed.

Citrus canker is a highly contagious disease that weakens trees and blemishes fruit.
It has appeared sporadically over the years in Southwest Florida, the most recent and destructive outbreak reaching Lee County in 2002.

As the disease spread, threatening Florida’s valuable citrus industry, the state began cutting trees to eradicate the disease. The state cut down all citrus trees — even if they were healthy — within a 1,900-foot radius of a contaminated one.

The state compensated people for their first cut tree with a $100 voucher to use at Wal-Mart and checks for $55 per additional lost tree.

All told, the state chopped down 16.5 million trees and issued $45 million in checks and vouchers.

Agriculture officials say that payout was more than fair.

“The trees, because they would eventually come down with the disease, we felt were without value,” Compton said.

Residents argued the payout only covered a fraction of their loss.

The Broward County case involved 58,000 homeowners who lost 133,000 trees.

In Lee County, more than 38,000 trees were eradicated, affecting about 8,000 residential property owners. About two-thirds of those were in Cape Coral, with the rest on Pine Island, North Fort Myers, Buckingham and the western fringes of the county.

Klockow lost five trees. Still, he refused to spend the Wal-Mart voucher.

“It was just the principle of the thing,” he said. “We knew that was an unfair amount.”

Klockow is among five Lee County residents who filed suit in May 2003, claiming the state violated their property rights by cutting down healthy trees.

The Lee suit includes all owners of noncommercial citrus trees whose trees weren’t infected but were destroyed in 2000 or later.

Plaintiffs are each seeking at least $15,000, but no individual claim exceeds $75,000. If a jury awarded such claims, the state would pay more than $120 million to Lee County residents.

Raymond Dellaselva of Cape Coral said the state’s compensation program didn’t come near to covering his losses when officials took a chain saw to five trees in his yard in 2004. His were located 1,840 yards from a contaminated tree.

“All the trees were healthy, and there was no citrus in the immediate area, so they were not contaminated,” he said.

Joe Dolliver said he lost 15 trees, some of which were 30 years old. He said a $100 voucher wasn’t enough to pay for a couple $60 saplings too small to bear fruit.

“The state just came in here and chopped them all down,” he said.

But not everybody who may benefit from a class-action suit is eager to take an award.

Judy Powers was upset in December 2005 when she lost a half-dozen trees, including grapefruit, orange and lime trees. The vouchers and checks the state gave her were plenty.

“I was glad we got anything,” she said.

Fighting the disease was in the best interest of the public, Powers said.

“I certainly understood the need for it to happen,” she said. “The folks who made those rules were certainly apologetic in letters. Nobody wanted to do this.”

— The News-Press staff writer Pat Gillespie and wire reports contributed to this report.

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