Update, March 12: House Bill 545 was tabled in the Georgia Senate Feb. 21.
Neighbors could no longer formally complain about the smell of a chicken house, noise of a tractor or any other alleged nuisance on farms in Georgia that have been operating for at least a year under a bill proposed in the state House.
Legislators are looking to balance the needs of the state’s top industry with the concerns of property owners who may be negatively affected by living near a farm.
Under House Bill 545, property owners would lose the right to bring a nuisance suit, or a legal complaint about noise, odor or a similar issue, against an agricultural operation if the agricultural business has been operating for at least a year.
While Georgia’s standard statute of limitations for a nuisance suit is four years from the beginning of the problem, the state’s existing “right to farm” law includes some extra limitations — if an agricultural operation has existed for more than a year, and then new neighbors move in, those new neighbors cannot sue the farm as a nuisance.
But the bill, as currently written, does not distinguish between new and existing property owners. Under the bill, if an agricultural business moves in, neighboring property owners would only have a year to bring a nuisance suit. If an operation has been in business for at least a year, neighbors would not be able to sue even if the operation expands, adopts new technology or becomes a different type of agricultural operation.
The bill has gained support from many farming groups, such as the Georgia Farm Bureau and Georgia Poultry Federation, but has some environmental groups concerned about impacts on neighboring properties.
“Even if their neighbors have all been there for decades, a large agricultural operation can come in, set up immense operations. … and after one year, they’re essentially protected from nuisance suits from these neighbors,” Kevin Jeselnik, general counsel for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said.
Jeselnik said it is also concerning that property owners could have little recourse if a neighboring operation chooses to expand.
“If that operation has been around for 18 months, and they’ve gone from 50 to 200 to 1,000 head of livestock, and as they’ve expanded they’re spraying more and more waste out on part of their acreage, if that’s creating odor or water runoff issues. … then the property owner that is impacted should have the right that they’ve always had to bring a nuisance suit if it’s actually hurting their property,” Jeselnik said.
The bill adds some restrictions to who can bring a nuisance suit against a farm. The person suing the farm would have to be the legal property owner of the affected property, and the property must be within five miles of the farm.
The bill would not change laws regarding negligence or malpractice, such as illegal waste dumping.
Agriculture remains Georgia’s No. 1 industry, and according to the text of the bill, legislators want to protect farmers who lose resources when nuisance suits arise.
“Agricultural operations and facilities, including support facilities and forest land, are often the subject of nuisance actions when nonagricultural land uses are also located in agricultural areas,” the bill reads. “As a result, such facilities are sometimes forced to cease operations. … It is the purpose of this Code section to reduce losses of the state's agricultural and forest land resources by limiting the circumstances under which agricultural facilities and operations or agricultural support facilities may be deemed to be a nuisance.”
The bill passed the Georgia House of Representatives last year, gaining the support of Hall County’s delegation. Now, the bill is being reviewed by the Senate’s Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on the changes on Tuesday, Jan. 28. That committee is chaired by state Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, who represents part of East Hall.
Wilkinson said the challenge will be balancing protections for farmers with concerns of property owners.
“We just want to make sure we have a good bill that protects the farmers and gives some recourse to the property owners, their neighbors, if we do have some bad actors in some situations that we need to correct,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said legislators will look at the bill and consider some adjustments to address concerns.
“There’s always a fear of the unknown. There’s always people looking for unintended consequences, and sometimes you do have unintended consequences,” Wilkinson said. “... Maybe we can go back and write something that is not vague at all that everybody can feel good about.”
Drew Echols of Jaemor Farms in Alto said he believes that farming and growth don’t have to be mutually exclusive, especially if farmers take the time to get to know their neighbors.
“The industry is changing so much and so quickly that the farmers, we’re having to adapt as well,” he said.
The day-to-day operations of a farm do generate some noise or traffic with deliveries and work in the fields, Echols said.
“On our end, it’s not really like the chicken house that smells, but there are certain jobs that we have to do at night because maybe the wind is blowing, or we may have workers in the field that day,” he said. “Then on the flip side, there are tractors that are out plowing the fields and when they come in the road, sometimes we get mud in the road.”
But Echols said trying to be considerate of neighbors and educate people about farming can help improve relationships with the community.
“Making introductions with new neighbors, showing people why we do what we do — we try to do that up in Jaemor,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we do field trips here in the fall, and we have farm events.”
As family farms become less common, many people do not know what it takes to run a farm, he said.
“This generation of folks really is in most cases, at least three generations removed from the family farm. People don’t understand the (agricultural) practices, the farming practices,” Echols said. “I think it’s important for the industry to be proactive. We need to be proactive, but we also need to be protected, too.”
Mike Giles, president of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation, said poultry farmers also need to be good neighbors. He supports the bill and said farmers who are following existing laws and best practices need some protections.
“The poultry industry continues to grow throughout Georgia,” Giles said in an email. “It is important for our farmers to be good neighbors and stewards of the land, while also being provided some level of protection against nuisance suits.”
Giles said the majority of land area in Hall County is within five miles of a poultry farm. In many of the other counties in Northeast Georgia, 100% of the land area is within five miles of a poultry farm.
Concern for those neighbors has led some environmental groups, including the Georgia Water Coalition, to lobby against the bill at the Capitol.
“The proponents of the bill seem to be kind of deciding that large-scale, corporate, industrial, agricultural operations — the rights of those kinds of operators trump not just traditional row crop farmers but your general rural property owners who maybe just wanted five or 10 acres in a quiet area,” Jeselnik said.