The conclusion of the citrus canker trial Thursday came down to the personal property rights of a few thousand Lee County residents versus what the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services claims is the greater public good.
Now it’s up to Circuit Court Judge Keith Kyle to determine which side prevails in a class-action lawsuit brought against the state on behalf of residents of 11,700 Lee County homes, claiming that the state cut down about 33,000 of their healthy trees in a failed effort to stop the spread of citrus canker disease. The eradication program ran from August 2002 to January 2006.
The concluding arguments were heard Thursday. If the plaintiffs prevail, a jury trial will be held to determine the amount of compensation owed the homeowners for their trees.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Gilbert of Miami said he expects the judge’s decision would take about two weeks.
The canker program was really a charade meant to save trees in the commercial citrus industry from the spread of canker at the expense of private homeowners, he told the judge. In effect, the residents whose trees were cut down had to shoulder the burden of a problem that should have been shared by the public as a whole, Gilbert said.
Wes Parsons, attorney for the Agriculture Department, retorted that there was no conspiracy by the state in implementing an eradication program for citrus canker, and that the state was not out to hurt residents.
The state is responsible for preserving the health of the trees and has to think of the bigger picture — what is good for the public, Parsons said. “One side is intensely and overwhelmingly concerned about their personal rights,” while the other side (state) is concerned about their responsibility and everyone’s rights, he said.
Citrus canker is a highly contagious disease that weakens trees and blemishes fruit. The peel is scarred, making the fruit less attractive and less marketable.
Gilbert said that the citrus canker trial is not about how much residents’ trees were worth, but whether they were worth anything. The state says they were worthless because they were a public nuisance, he charged. They were sacrificed to make sure commercial citrus groves were protected, he said.
“Classically, plant pests have been considered to be a public nuisance,” Parsons said. In this case, the bacterial canker disease a public nuisance, but to all trees, Parsons said. “Private property doesn’t stay private in Florida in terms of the spread of disease.”
Southwest Florida claims about 100,000 acres of citrus, and provides about 25 percent of the state’s total production. The region’s agribusiness has an estimated $1 billion in annual sales.
Gilbert said a state official responded to a letter from one of the plaintiffs, saying that the economic impact of the disease on the industry would be $300 million.
The plaintiffs believe that their trees were worth more than the state paid them, Gilbert said. Parsons appeared to be saying that the plaintiffs’ concern for their personal property rights was “selfish,” he said.
Initially, the state had offered $100 gift cards to Walmart in compensation for the first tree cut, followed by $55 checks for additional trees. The state issued about $45 million in checks and vouchers.
But Gilbert noted that a tree expert testified in a Miami-Dade County citrus trial that $200 was “very low” as compensation, and the citrus trees were really worth an average of $438.
“At least we’re getting our day in court,” said Deanna Klockow of Cape Coral, who with her husband, John, are among the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.