Push on to strengthen right-to-farm law

ATLANTA — Successful lawsuits against the hog industry in North Carolina have farmers and agribusiness interests in Georgia sounding the alarm that the state’s prized agriculture industry could be vulnerable to costly complaints over the sounds and smells of farm life.

But environmentalists warn that a legislative proposal moving through the Gold Dome this session goes too far, limiting the ability of residents to challenge new agricultural activities that may disrupt the tranquility of rural life.

The North Carolina case that started the debate here centers on homeowners who successfully took a major pork producer to court over smelly pig waste, which was being stored in ponds on farms and then spread across fields as fertilizer.

Some neighbors, whose families had been there for generations, said the odor was so strong they could not remove the stench from their clothes.

What sent chills through the agricultural community in Georgia and elsewhere was a judge’s ruling that North Carolina’s right-to-farm law did not shield farmers from these lawsuits and the resulting high-dollar jury verdicts.

“We don’t want to be the next in line to fall victim to what’s happened to those guys,” said Jeffrey Harvey, director of public policy for the Georgia Farm Bureau.

The fear, Harvey said, is that the protection Georgia farmers have believed was there for almost 40 years may not really exist.

That’s why the state Farm Bureau, the Georgia Poultry Federation and others view a proposal to change Georgia’s right-to-farm law as a top priority for this session.

Specifically, the measure would limit nuisance lawsuits to the first year of operation — and the lawsuit would have to be filed within that same time frame. There would be no time limit on claims of negligent, improper or illegal activity.

The affected property would have to be within five miles of the nuisance activity.

“There’s been a lot of people who are thinking we are ruining private property rights, and we are not,” said Rep. Tom McCall, who is a farmer in Elberton and the bill’s sponsor.

“The people we are trying to take care of with this bill are farmers that love the land that they work and that they live on,” McCall said. “Their land and their farms are their legacy and their family’s legacy. A lot of it’s been in families for generations.”

But environmentalists and others say the proposal compromises the private property rights of neighboring homeowners who also have deep roots.

While the one-year time limit for complaints may not be new for cases where someone moves into an existing agricultural community, the measure sticks the one-year deadline on property owners who were there before the farms came along, said April Lipscomb, an Atlanta-based staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Today, those homeowners have four years to file a claim, according to Lipscomb. She said scaling that back would hurt the ability of these longtime property owners to protect their property values and quality of life from newly arriving nuisances.

“A new hog farm could pop up next to a residential area and commence operation with just a few hogs, wait a year and then bring in hundreds more hogs and create a nuisance,” Lipscomb said.

“At that point, the original homeowners would be stuck living with noise, odors, flies, decreased property values and other problems,” she said.

Lipscomb said that McCall’s bill would limit the power of the courts to sort out these disputes and that it seeks to fix a problem that does not even exist in Georgia.

The one-year window for complaints would reopen if the agricultural operation makes any change that is significant enough to require a state permit or a local zoning change.

But many changes — such as a change in the type of agricultural operation — would not open the farmer up to nuisance complaints.

Sen. Larry Walker, a Republican from Perry, said that is a major shift from the current law, which he described as being geared more toward protecting farms from subdivisions and other developments that might spring up around them.

“I just think that’s a very significant change that we have to really think through and be careful about what we’re doing here,” Walker said.

The measure struggled in the House earlier this month but passed with a 107-to-58 vote that mostly fell along party lines. It was passed out of a Senate committee this week. The session ends April 2.

Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.

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