(March 18) TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Legislation that should clear the way for renewing a full-scale citrus canker eradication program has been approved by both houses of the Florida Legislature.

Once Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signs it into law, the state’s agriculture officials should resume their policy of removing all citrus trees within 1,900 feet of an infected one — a policy that was earlier adopted under administrative rule but challenged in the courts by residents in communities from Miami to West Palm Beach.

SPREAD TO 10 COUNTIES

Agriculture officials have destroyed about 600,000 residential trees and 1.5 million commercial citrus trees since canker was first discovered in 1995 near Miami International Airport. The disease has spread to 10 Florida counties and has entered the extreme south and north ends of the Indian River grapefruit district.

Canker has spread unnecessarily since last year, when lawsuits halted the 1,900-foot rule, agriculture officials said.

’FRIVOLOUS LAWSUITS’

“We have evidence that the removal of infected and exposed trees within the 1,900-foot area works,” said Andy LaVigne, executive vice president of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual. “Despite this evidence, it is unfortunate that frivolous lawsuits in south Florida have continued to allow canker to spread.”

In recent months, only trees that have tested positive for canker — not those nearby that have been exposed to the disease — have been removed in residential areas.

Ray Gilmer, director of the communications and education division of the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said officials overseeing the eradication program think codifying the 1,900-foot rule into law is the most expedient way to resume the program but don’t plan to drop their appeals of earlier injunctions issued by administrative judges.