- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. A resilient bacteria has done more than infect hundreds of thousands of Florida's beloved citrus trees. It has eroded the confidence residents have in their state government and undermined public support for the state's $8.5 billion citrus industry.

Florida officials and the contractors hired to cut down trees infected with a bacteria known as canker are called hateful names like Gestapo Lumberjacks and the Citrus Gestapo. Homeowners and local officials have united against them, complaining that they have stormed onto private property to cut down trees, that healthy trees are needlessly sacrificed in an attempt to stop canker and that the state isn't fairly reimbursing homeowners for trees they destroy.

Cutting continues in south Florida neighborhoods and in commercial citrus groves, where canker has taken hold for the third time since 1914. State officials believe they are within weeks of eradicating the current outbreak, and they say they have gotten rid of the disease in the Tampa Bay area, the northernmost spot to which canker migrated. But the civic wounds caused by the $200 million state program could take much longer to heal.

"Every single person I talk to is outraged, but, at the same time, when these eradication crews come to your yard, you feel intimidated and powerless," said Bradley Coule, a project manager for an architectural firm who lives with his wife, Janet, and two children in the suburban Miami-Dade County city of South Miami.

The bacteria is an Asiatic strain of canker. It doesn't kill trees and it doesn't harm humans, but it causes brown lesions on stems, leaves and fruit. That worries commercial growers, who say the spots will make fruit unmarketable. Growers also say canker causes fruit to drop from trees before it is ready to be harvested and makes trees susceptible to other diseases.

Growers are alarmed at the potential canker has to decimate Florida's variety of citrus trees, including orange, grapefruit, lime, lemon, and tangerine, to name a few. While growers are worried what will happen if citrus trees are not removed, homeowners are worried about what happens if they are removed.

The "No trespassing" sign on the Coules' tall, wooden fence did not keep out inspectors looking for cankerous trees in South Miami. They walked into the Coules' back yard one day in August while the family was away.

On Oct. 11, the family got a letter telling them their orange tree would be cut down. The Coules don't think their tree is infected. A homemade notice hanging from the tree marked for removal says it has been tested by an independent lab in Indiana and is canker-free.

If the Coules can't convince the Florida Agriculture Department their tree is healthy, a controversial new rule put in place earlier this year says other citrus trees some as far as five blocks away also must be cut down. The new rule is intended to prevent the contagious bacteria from spreading.

No alternative

It is just one example of the fight residents in South Florida communities have waged against a state program they view as intrusive and inept.

Florida Agriculture Department Deputy Commissioner Craig Meyer said officials are sensitive to homeowner complaints, but the law supports the state's actions, and there is little else they can do to eliminate the bacteria. Complaints about the state program have increased since August, when contractors began inspecting and cutting down trees on as many as 2,000 properties a day in a frantic push to finally eliminate canker's spread.

"The people who are upset are very passionate, and we understand why. But if there was any other way to do this, we would have done it. We just haven't found any other way," Mr. Meyer said.

The Florida Legislature gives state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford authority to order elimination of potentially diseased trees that could harm the citrus industry.

"We believe we're on solid ground," Mr. Meyer said.

By Nov. 10, contractors had cut down more than 1.4 million citrus trees in seven counties. That is serious business in a state where residents eat fruit grown on backyard trees and license plates carry an image of a big, healthy orange.

Canker since 1995

The most recent epidemic of canker was discovered in a grapefruit tree in 1995 near the Miami International Airport.

Scientists for the U.S. Department of Agriculture have convinced state officials that canker can spread rapidly to uninfected citrus trees. Birds, wind-driven rain and humans who inadvertently carry it on their skin or on equipment typically spread the disease.

After four years of failing to contain the bacteria, Mr. Crawford decided in February that citrus trees within 1,900 feet of infected trees must be cut down. Before the change, Mr. Crawford enforced a rule in place since 1986 requiring citrus trees within 125 feet of an infected citrus tree be cut down.

"We just weren't able to keep up with the spread of the disease," Agriculture Department spokesman Mark Fagan said.

Furor over the program coincided with an increase in August of the state's decision to increase funding and add tree-cutting crews. A group of communities in Broward County, on southeast Florida's Gold Coast, filed a lawsuit Oct. 27 against the state to stop contractors from cutting seemingly healthy trees within the kill zone.

John and Patricia Haire, who live in Fort Lauderdale, have been told that all 10 of the citrus trees in their yard will be cut down because they are within 1,900 feet of an infected tree. But they haven't been told where the infected tree is.

"We have no rights," Mrs. Haire said.

Kathy Batt, who lives in Plantation, Fla., in Broward County, has chained her fence closed and placed a "No trespassing" sign on it to keep chain-saw wielding contractors from removing her grapefruit tree.

Her tree also is within 1,900 feet of an infected tree, but Mrs. Batt has been unable to convince the Agriculture Department that it is healthy.

"You're allowed to have a voice. You just aren't heard," she said.

Circuit Court Judge J. Leonard Fleet ruled against the Agriculture Department Nov. 17, ordering it to stop cutting down healthy trees and delivering a harsh critique of the state's "scorched-earth policy."

"The cavalier attitude of the department toward the rights of the general populace is not acceptable to this court," he wrote in his opinion.

State officials have appealed the judge's ruling. Pending appeal, the Agriculture Department has decided it will destroy trees only in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties that show symptoms of canker. They won't cut down seemingly healthy trees.

South Miami sues state

Researchers and state officials stand by the need for a 1,900-foot kill zone, even though it represents a massive increase over the former 125-foot rule.

Tim Gottwald, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist whose research the state used to establish the 1,900-foot rule, defended his plan publicly for the first time Nov. 9 when he testified in Broward County's lawsuit.

A 1,900-foot kill zone increases the chance of preventing the spread of canker because 95 percent of the time canker from an infected tree falls within 1,900 feet of that tree, Mr. Meyer said. Forty percent of the time, canker falls within 125 feet of an infected tree, according to the research.

"Our mission is to eradicate this disease. It's our belief that if we don't eradicate it, it will have a major, adverse affect on the citrus industry, and there is no treatment. We have nothing we can inject into trees like medicine and treat them," he said.

Broward County is not the only jurisdiction where angry citizens have convinced local officials to fight the Agriculture Department. The Miami-Dade County cities of South Miami and Pinecrest also filed suit to stop removal of healthy trees.

South Miami and Pinecrest didn't stop the cutting, but they did reach an agreement with the state that provides for better public notification of the location of infected trees. Now South Miami Mayor Julio Robaina can walk down the hall from his office in tiny South Miami City Hall and point to maps that show where infected trees stand. The maps also show how far the 1,900-foot kill zone extends from each of those infected citrus trees.

Little land within South Miami is still free of the bacteria.

"The sad thing is that I think a lot of people won't plant citrus trees again. They have said they can't go through something like this again," said Mr. Robaina, a three-term Democrat.

The agreement that South Miami and Pinecrest lawyers negotiated also gives homeowners a chance to challenge a diagnosis of an infected tree by obtaining a second opinion from a certified plant pathologist. The agriculture commissioner extended that agreement to every jurisdiction in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

"This is all we wanted," Mr. Robaina said. "We have our rights, and we want proof. When we look at the state, it's supposed to be a model of professionalism. We didn't get that. After this, I don't think there's any trust for the state anymore."

Shaking their heads

Residents still are dissatisfied with the state's plans for compensating homeowners whose trees are taken.

The state gives a $100 Wal-Mart voucher to each property owner who has trees removed whether one tree or 10 trees are destroyed. But contractors cutting down citrus trees get $96 for each tree they cut down. Miami-Dade and Broward counties will receive an additional $8 million from the state to help homeowners plant new greenery in place of citrus trees lost.

And homeowners still are shaking their heads at what they believe is the underlying motive in the state's blitzkrieg against canker. Many residents say they believe Florida's citrus industry is behind the state's aggressive effort to remove residential citrus trees.

Commercial growers do believe removing suburban trees will reduce the chance that canker spreads to its estimated 1 billion commercial citrus trees. But homeowners say it is unfair that they should sacrifice their trees to protect the industry.

Commercial growers are quick to remind angry homeowners they have lost more trees 868,000 as of Nov. 10 than residents have lost 571,000.

Homeowners are unsympathetic.

"Why does the state have the right to come on my property just because they say this will harm the industry? So what if it does? Everybody has risks associated with doing business," Mr. Coule said.

Nathaniel Roberts, general manager of Callery Judge Grove, a 4,000-acre grove in rural Palm Beach County, said that unless the state completes efforts to kill canker, the bacteria will regain strength and infect healthy residential and commercial citrus trees.

"They are saying we're close to eradicating it in south Florida. If we don't finish this now, we will let the genie back out of the bottle," Mr. Roberts said.

Homeowners argue the program has gone on too long already, and some are taking their frustration out on the industry.

"I won't buy any more Florida citrus," Mrs. Coule said.

State officials and the industry may win their fight against the resilient bacteria, but if there is a real backlash, angry consumers could prove to be a more formidable opponent than canker.

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