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Fla. Homeowners Fight To Save Trees

October 19, 2000

MIAMI (AP) _ Enraging homeowners, Florida agriculture officials are going into back yards and cutting down people’s beloved citrus trees in an effort to stamp out a crop-destroying strain of bacteria.

The campaign has led to armed standoffs between agriculture crews and homeowners.

``We have had all our rights taken away,″ said Nick Michaels. ``People’s property is being destroyed. We have Nazis here in Florida with Gestapo tactics.″

The problem is citrus canker, a type of bacteria that causes oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes and other fruits to fall prematurely and leaves lesions on fruit and leaves. The outbreak, confined mostly to the southern part of the state, poses a major threat to central Florida’s $8.5 billion citrus industry.

There is no chemical that will kill canker in plant tissue. As a result, more than 750,000 trees have been cut down and burned since 1995 in residential areas of three Miami-area counties.

State rules allow the destruction of trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree, no matter where it is. And citrus trees cannot be replanted in the affected areas for two years.

Florida Agriculture Department spokesman Terry McElroy said crews hope to wipe out the disease over the next six weeks _ if homeowners cooperate.

A Broward County man was arrested Wednesday after he threatened to shoot a worker who came into his yard to remove a tree. On Monday, a dog died as crews ground up a stump next door; the owner suspects they were using chemicals that killed his pet, but the cause of death has not been determined.

Bobbie Tyler said she, her roommates and sister plan to form a human chain to save their grapefruit tree in Kendall, outside Miami.

``She’s a beautiful old grandmother grapefruit. We’ve loved her for 25 years and cared for her,″ Tyler said. ``They have to come through us to get to the trees. If it means hauling us off to jail, then so be it.″

Fernando Ruiz stood at his front gate Thursday with his six dogs as he tried to keep workers from removing tangerine and grapefruit trees he and his father planted 20 years ago.

``You can’t come in,″ he said, holding a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Police were called, and the crew left until it could produce evidence it had given Ruiz the required notice.

Generally, letters are sent out informing people that agricultural crews will be in the neighborhood cutting down trees in the next few days.

Even though the state offers homeowners some compensation _ a $100 gift certificate per residence no matter how many trees are removed _ they won’t willingly give them up. And some are heartbroken to lose the trees.

Some of the trees were planted to remember loved ones or to celebrate special occasions, like the birth of a child or buying a house. Many trees are old and their caretakers have shared fruit with family and friends for years. The Ruiz family has saved an estimated $100 per year in grocery costs because of the homegrown grapefruit.

``There’s not a lot of satisfaction in knowing that something that is not sick is being taken away from them,″ said Steve Sapp, president of the Dade County Farm Bureau.

South Miami Mayor Julio Robaina and University of Miami professor Fred Westphal have sued the Agriculture Department, saying it is not giving residents enough notice and the right to appeal.

Some people aren’t just angry at the loss of their trees. Jeane-Robert Lamare of Miami stood in his driveway, staring at cracks on the pavement caused by a shredder canker workers used to cut down his grapefruit tree.

``I don’t care about the grapefruit tree as much as my property,″ Lemare said.


On the Net:


State canker site: http://doacs.state.fl.us/(tilde)pi/canker/index.htm

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