THE POWER TO DESTROY
A news story a few ago piqued my interest, and I am only now getting around to writing about it. Everyone knows that the Tree of Heaven, sometimes more accurately called the “tree of hell,” is an aggressive and invasive species. Likewise, everyone knows that the spotted lanternfly is a noxious pest.
It seems Pennsylvania has declared the TOH to be a noxious plant because – in addition to all of the other excellent reasons to try to tear it out by the roots and burn it – the Tree of Heaven is a favorite host of the spotted lanternfly. Being introduced to the noxious plant list won’t be enough to require Pennsylvania landowners to eradicate the Tree of Heaven wherever it is found, but what if it Pennsylvania ordered it?
The Commonwealth’s noxious plant list is a textbook example of the police power, not necessarily the guys with fast cars, flashing lights, and doughnuts, but rather the basic right of governments to enact laws and adopt regulations for the benefit of their communities. Under the system of government in the United States, only states have the right to make laws based on their police power. The lawmaking power of the federal government is limited to the specific grants of power found in the Constitution.
Need an example? Did you happen to read about a recent pandemic, and states shutting down and ordering people to wear masks and the such? That’s the police power in action.
Could Pennsylvania use its police power to force the homeowner who planted a row of trees of heaven in his front yard – if such an idiot exists – to tear them out without compensation?
Eighty years ago, in Miller v. Schoene, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Virginia law requiring landowners to destroy cedar trees to stop the spread of cedar rust. The rust didn’t hurt the cedar trees at all, but it was devastating to apple orchards. The Commonwealth would not pay the owners for the loss of their trees.
The Supremes held that Virginia was within its rights to issue the order. The Commonwealth was “under the necessity of making a choice between the preservation of one class of property and that of the other wherever both existed in dangerous proximity… When forced to such a choice a state does not exceed its constitutional powers by deciding upon the destruction of one class of property in order to save another which, in the judgment of the legislature, is of greater value to the public.”
The high court said there was a public interest in the preservation of the apple crop over the cedars. And where the public interest is involved, “preferment of that interest over the property interest of the individual, to the extent even of its destruction, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of every exercise of the police power which affects property.”
A more current application of the police power of the government to order the emergency abatement of a threat, relying on the Miller ruling, happened 20 years ago, when five beetles went on a walkabout.
In re Property Located At 14255 53rd Ave S., Tukwila, King County, Washington, 120 Wash.App. 737, 86 P.3d 222 (Court of Appeals, Washington, March 22, 2004). Three citrus long-horned beetles were found in a Tukwila nursery in August 2001, in maple tree bonsai stock imported from Korea. One beetle was a pregnant female. Because there were eight beetle exit holes on the stock, five beetles had presumably escaped from the quarantine area. In fact, one was seen flying away from the nursery. The discovery of the accidental escape was alarming because the beetle, a major pest of citrus, also feeds on many other trees, including apple and other fruit trees as well as alder, willow, oak, and some conifers. Eventually, the beetle kills all host trees.
The Governor proclaimed an emergency in June 2002 and authorized the Department of Agriculture to implement the eradication plan. The Department immediately began to remove trees. The landowners within the one-eighth-mile radius found themselves in the predicament that through no fault of their own, their lovely trees had become a threat to the community because of their susceptibility to being commandeered by a noxious pest. The Department established a $100,000 fund for the purchase of replacement trees and other vegetation for yards and gardens, and arranged to supply landowners with vouchers that could be used to obtain various non-host species of vegetation from participating nurseries.
These efforts to mitigate the effect of the eradication plan fell short of what several landowners regarded as fair. The landowners took the position that they were constitutionally entitled to just compensation before their trees could be destroyed. Targeted for destruction on land belonging to Sheila Malbrain and Lee Terrell were fruit trees, flowering plums, poplar trees, rose and lilac bushes, azaleas, and fir trees their arborist valued at a total of $116,262. Seven fruit trees on Carl Gorgey’s land were valued at $4,430. Six broadleaf trees on land belonging to Ralph and Thelma Kissinger were valued at $17,215.
The Department sought administrative warrants to gain entry to the respondents’ properties. The superior court found that the warrants were supported by probable cause. The court made an unchallenged finding that the beetle constituted an “extreme threat to the interests of the state” and that the Department acted reasonably in its response to this threat. The court nevertheless ruled that destruction of the trees was a compensable taking, and conditioned the issuance of the warrants upon the landowners first being compensated.
Held: The Court followed Miller v. Schoene and applied the law of necessity, holding that in meeting an emergency — such as fire, flood, or pestilence — public officials and private citizens may employ almost any available means in an endeavor to control the danger.
The Court ruled that not eradicating the trees constituted a noxious use of property — a nuisance, if you will — because of the risk the healthy tree might become a host to the beetle. Although the landowners complainned they had to bear a disproportionate cost of the State’s response to the threat, the Court of Appeals held, as in Miller v. Schoene, that the State of Washington had to make a choice to address the threat, and “when the private sacrifices that must be made to defeat a public enemy are not evenly distributed, the Constitution will not necessarily compel an equalizing adjustment.”
Interestingly, both the Supreme Court in Miller and, seventy years later, the Washington court in Tukwila, suggested that the law of necessity was related to the law of nuisance. Both recognize the obligations of property owners to each other and to the community. The power that the State possesses to prohibit uses of property that injure health, morals, or safety of the public is not burdened with the requirement that the State must compensate individual owners for the losses they sustain because they cannot use their property to inflict injury upon the community.
– Tom Root