What do we owe our neighbors?

Right-to-Farm bills aim to protect farms from non-farming neighbors intolerant of reasonable farm-related smells and noises. However, recent changes in some states’ Right-to-Farm legislation edge close to crossing a line towards protecting the rights of farms to pollute. Georgia just passed a stricter Right-to-Farm bill that re-ignites this debate.

Georgia amended their right to farm law, and the changes will become effective July 1 this year. A significant alteration to the rule was to remove language referring to “changed conditions–” referring to changing populations in rural areas (i.e., urban sprawl). The current Georgia law protects farms that have existed in rural, agricultural areas for years from new neighbors that might be offended by a farm’s smells and noises. The law limits the ability of a new neighbor to sue. Essentially, you cannot move next door to a farm and then claim that the farm interferes with your property enjoyment.

With Georgia’s previous law, the opposite was also true—a farm could not move to a rural residential area and begin a farm operation that harmed the pre-existing residents. A relatively recent set of federal litigation decisions in North Carolina made this abundantly clear. Residents harmed by CAFOs won cases against a division of Smithfield farms. Smithfield tried to use the Right-to-Farm statutes as a defense, but courts sided with the residents because, to put it simply, the residents had been there first.

Georgia, along with many other states, paid attention to the litigation in North Carolina. Now, they’ve strengthened their Right-to-Farm law in response. Come July, long-standing residents won’t enjoy the same protections against noxious neighboring farms. To file a nuisance suit against a farm, residents will have to meet these two criteria:

  1. they have to “legally possess” the land being affected by the farm (actual residents must sue, not (for example) an interested advocacy organization), and
  2. they must file the suit within two years of the operation starting (starting a CAFO on a previously different type of farm will re-start the two-year clock).

Limiting the ability of individuals to bring their cases to court signals a shift: there is interest in letting lawmakers and regulators decide when farms are an unreasonable nuisance. Georgia’s law makes a nod toward this position by including that any negligent, improper, or illegal farming operation will lose its right to farm protection. If these Right-to-Farm laws continue to expand protections for farms, our lawmakers and regulatory bodies will shoulder the sole responsibility to develop and enforce any regulations on farms.

Ironically, it isn’t just urbanites moving to rural areas that have used nuisance suits to protect their property from farm noises, smells, chemicals, and waste. Farmers can also be plaintiffs in these suits. We know that farms can be sources of pollution and can be detrimental to people’s health; we know that minority communities are home to many of the worst farm polluters.

Neighbor disputes are common everywhere, and plenty of farmers bear unreasonable complaints from people who want to enjoy rural life but don’t appreciate the work that happens in the rural areas. Is there a glut of frivolous lawsuits from residents against their farm neighbors, though? How do we determine when a large farm operation damages an entire neighborhood? What recourse do we want individuals to have?

Read more about Georgia’s new law here.