Housing Crisis at Root of Fla. Citrus Blight?

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Homeowners in Florida have one more thing to worry about with dropping prices: A disease is spreading and killing orange trees in abandoned lots that developers fled after the housing market crashed.

While it's doubtful that not having an orange tree in the backyard will prevent anyone from buying homes that are already cheap, agricultural officials are worried that the problem will continue to grow, due in part to "grove abandonment." A recent Wall Street Journal story reports that citrus greening, or yellow dragon disease, has spread because absentee landowners have left orange groves for dead, after not building homes on them as planned.

"That's not a good situation for any type of agricultural production, to have a neighbor not properly maintaining his area," farmer Marty McKenna told the Journal. "It's only a matter of time until it's in every grove in the state."
But dead orange trees are the least of the worries of anyone in the housing market in Florida, says Phil Peachey, a real estate agent with Florida Choice Realty in Polk County in the center of the state, which has more than 83,000 acres of citrus acreage -- the most in Florida.

"No one here knows anything about this, nothing," Peachey told HousingWatch, adding that while he is aware of the problem, it's not an issue for buyers.

"That would be the least of our worries right now," he said of the blight.

More than one in 10 acres of orange groves are abandoned in Polk County, according to the USDA. The county -- which is along Interstate 4 between Tampa
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and Orlando -- was popular with developers who wanted to build homes and sell them for around $400,000, but the market fell, Peachey said.

A 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bath house that sold for $350,000 in 2006 was foreclosed and recently sold at auction for $80,000, he said. The median price of a home in the county has dropped from $400,000 four years ago to $150,000 today, he added.

For homeowners in Florida who have or want orange trees in their yards, there's no stopping the disease, which turns oranges green and small before eventually killing the tree. Pesticides are partly effective to prevent the disease, but once hit, infected trees must be removed.

About half of the homeowners in the state have trees with the disease, Mongi Zekri, a citrus agent at the University of Florida, told HousingWatch. "It's a matter of time before everybody has the disease," he added.

It's easy to see when a tree has developed citrus greening. "It will start declining and you'll have no fruit production, and the fruit will stay small, will remain green," Zekri said.

Because there is no cure once a tree is infected, the USDA recommends reporting it immediately so that it can be destroyed and the disease won't spread. Although the fruit will be inedible, Zekri said that the tree's life can be prolonged by watering and fertilizing it, but that eventually the disease will kill it.

It's bad enough that abandoned homes dot the Florida landscape. Dying orange trees are another blemish on the state's housing problems.

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