Foul smells, grating noises and industrial lighting may not be uncommon on farms, in poultry plants and in other agribusinesses, but neighbors may consider it all a nuisance. Some Georgia lawmakers want to limit lawsuits from such neighbors.
A bill that passed the state House earlier this month, with all representatives from Hall County voting in support, has its roots in a series of North Carolina lawsuits in recent years that have won hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments for plaintiffs against a large hog farming operator.
“As a result, such facilities are sometimes forced to cease operations,” the bill states, or it discourages new investments, expansion or improvements. “It is the purpose of this (bill) 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."
Jeffrey Harvey, director of public policy for the Georgia Farm Bureau, said rulings that occurred in North Carolina “undermined the protections we thought we’ve always had.”
In one example, he said, a farmer sold portions of his property and was sued years later by the residents, his new neighbors, who had established lots there.
Harvey added that new language in the bill takes the “subjective test out of the question” by establishing a clear timetable for complaints to be made.
Proponents say the bill is simply clarifying language to protect farms and agricultural operators doing business before neighboring commercial and residential developments were established. They say a one-year statute to file nuisance claims remains the standard.
“That’s supposed to be the intent of it,” said Jerry Truelove, a longtime farmer of cattle and dairy in North Hall County. “It’s not that there are a bunch of nuisance complaints right now.”
But, Truelove said, nuisance complaints are often frivolous and “farmers don’t have the money to fight in court. Their money is tied up in the crop they’re growing.”
The bill also includes provisions to limit complaints when there is an expansion of physical facilities; adoption of new technology; change in size of an operation or facility; and change in the type of agricultural operation.
Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said the bill sought to define what constitutes a “changed condition.”
“What we’re trying to do with this … if you’re a farmer operating legally and have established for that one year period or more … then we’re giving (them) the protection of the ‘right to farm’ after one year,” Dubnik said.
Opponents argue that current law, which classifies Georgia as a “right to farm” state, is sufficient to prevent prohibitive lawsuits.
Chris Manganiello, water policy director for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said the state’s existing law, established four decades ago, “has provided reasonable protection to farmers” when suburban sprawl creeps into rural areas.
In such a case, new property owners or residents would have only one year to file a nuisance complaint, effectively grandfathering agricultural uses into new zoning.
“We have asked for evidence that there is a problem in Georgia, and no one has been able to produce examples of how we have frivolous nuisance suits,” Manganiello said, adding that this is evidence that current law is working satisfactorily.
The Georgia Water Coalition, and a loose network of property rights advocates, share the Riverkeeper’s position on the bill.
Manganiello said the bill would not change laws regarding negligence or malpractice, such as illegal waste dumping from poultry plants.
However, the bill could give broad protections to farmers against nuisance complaints when the agricultural use has “come into the community.”
Manganiello said that, in such a case, property owners would technically have four years under a nuisance statute to file a complaint, but the House bill would limit that to one year.
Nuisances can have a negative effect on everything from water quality to property values, Manganiello said, and the full consequences of a nuisance may not be realized until after the statute of limitations passes.
And amendments may be added that give additional authority to the state agriculture commissioner, such as overseeing regulations on fertilizers derived from industrial byproducts.
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said on Thursday that environmental lobbying groups have used nuisance complaints as a way to test limits on agriculture operations.
“They keep putting nuisance in it,” he said. “Where they’re trying to go with this is very broad.”