Monday, May 6, 2019
Nuisance lawsuits in agriculture are often triggered by offensive odors that migrate to neighboring rural residential landowners. While there aren’t any common law defenses that an agricultural operation may use to shield itself from liability arising from a nuisance action, courts do consider a variety of factors to determine if the conduct of a particular farm or ranch operation is a nuisance. See, e.g., Valasek v. Baer, 401 N.W.2d 33 (Iowa 1987); Spur Industries, Inc. v. Del E. Webb Development Co., 108 Ariz. 178, 494 P.2d 700 (1972). Of primary importance are priority of location and reasonableness of the operation. Together, these two factors have led courts to develop a “coming to the nuisance” defense. This means that if people move to an area they know is not suited for their intended use, they should be prohibited from claiming that the existing uses are nuisances. But, what if the ag nuisance comes to you? Is the ag operation similarly protected in that situation?
The coming-to-the-nuisance defense in reverse – that’s the topic of today’s post.
In general. Every state has enacted a right-to-farm law that is designed to protect existing agricultural operations by giving farmers and ranchers who meet the legal requirements a defense in nuisance suits. It may not be only traditional row crop or livestock operations that are protected. For example, the Washington statute also applies to “forest practices” which has been held to not be limited to logging activity, but include the growing of trees. Alpental Community Club, Inc., v. Seattle Gymnastics Society, 86 P.3d 784 (Wash. Ct. App. 2004).
The basic thrust of a particular state's right-to-farm law is that it is unfair for a person to move to an agricultural area knowing the conditions which might be present and then ask a court to declare a neighboring farm a nuisance. Thus, the basic purpose of a right-to-farm law is to create a legal and economic climate in which farm operations can be continued. Right-to-farm laws can be an important protection for agricultural operations. But, to be protected, an agricultural operation must satisfy the law's requirements. To be granted the protection of a statute, the activity at issue must be a farming activity. For example, in Hood River County v. Mazzara, 89 P.3d 1195 (Or. Ct. App. 2004), the state statute that protected farms against nuisance actions was held to bar a lawsuit against a farmer for noise from barking dogs. The use of dogs to protect livestock was held to be farming practice.
Types. Right-to-farm laws are of three basic types: (1) nuisance related; (2) restrictions on local regulations of agricultural operations; and (3) zoning related. While these categories provide a method for identifying and discussing the major features of right-to-farm laws, any particular state's right-to-farm law may contain elements of each category.
The most common type of right-to-farm law is nuisance related. This type of statute requires that an agricultural operation will be protected only if it has been in existence for a specified period of time (usually at least one year) before the change in the surrounding area that gives rise to a nuisance claim. See, e.g., Vicwood Meridian Partnership, et al. v. Skagit Sand and Gravel, 98 P. 3d 1277 (Wash. Ct. App. 2004). This type of statute essentially codifies the “coming to the nuisance defense,” but does not protect agricultural operations which were a nuisance from the beginning or which are negligently or improperly run. For example, if any state or federal permits are required to properly conduct the agricultural operation, they must be acquired as a prerequisite for protection under the statute.
Subsequent changes – what’s going on in Indiana? While right-to-farm laws try to assure the continuation of farming operations, they do not protect subsequent changes in a farming operation that constitute a nuisance after local development occurs nearby. See, e.g., Davis, et al. v. Taylor, et al., 132 P.3d 783 (Wash. Ct. App. 2006); Trickett v. Ochs, 838 A.2d 66 (Vt. 2003); Flansburgh v. Coffey, 370 N.W.2d 127 (Neb. 1985). If a nuisance cannot be established, a right-to-farm law can operate to bar an action when the agricultural activity on land changes in nature. For instance, in Dalzell, et al. v. Country View Family Farms, LLC, No. 1:09-cv-1567-WTL-MJD, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130773 (S.D. Ind. Sept. 13, 2012), the land near the plaintiffs changed hands. The prior owner had conducted a row-crop operation on the property. The new owner continued to raise row crops, but then got approval for a 2800-head sow confinement facility. The defendant claimed the state (IN) right-to-farm law as a defense and sought summary judgment. The court held that state law only allows nuisance claims when “significant change” occurs and that transition from row crops to a hog confinement facility did not meet the test because both are agricultural uses. The court noted that an exception existed if the plaintiffs could prove that the hog confinement operation was being operated in a negligent manner which causes a nuisance, but the plaintiffs failed to prove that the alleged negligence was the proximate cause of the claimed nuisance. Thus, the exception did not apply and the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted. The court’s decision was affirmed on appeal. Dalzell, et al. v. Country View Family Farms, LLC, et al., No. 12-3339, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 13621 (7th Cir. Jul. 3, 2013).
Similarly, in Parker v. Obert’s Legacy Dairy, LLC, No. 26A05-1209-PL-450, 2013 Ind. App. LEXIS 203 (Ind. Ct. App. Apr. 30, 2013), the defendant had expanded an existing dairy operation from 100 cows to 760 cows by building a new milking parlor and free-stall barn on a tract adjacent to the farmstead where the plaintiff’s family had farmed since the early 1800s. The plaintiff sued for nuisance and the defendant asserted the state (IN) right-to-farm statute as a defense. The court determined that the statute barred the suit. Importantly, the court determined that the expansion of the farm did not necessarily result in the loss of the statute’s protection. The expanded farm remained covered under the same Confined Animal Feeding Operation permit as the original farm. In addition, the conversion of a crop field to a dairy facility was protected by the statute because both uses simply involved different forms of agriculture. The court also noted that the Indiana statute at issue protected one farmer from suit by another farmer for nuisance if the claim involves odor and loss of property value. Not all state statutes apply to protect farmers from nuisance suits brought by other farmers.
The coming-to-the-nuisance defense in reverse – recent case. A recent case again involving the Indiana right-to-farm statute was decided. In Himsel v. Himsel, No. 18A-PL-645, 2019 Ind. App. LEXIS 181 (Ind. Ct. App. Apr. 22, 2019), the defendants were three individuals, their farming operation and a hog supplier. In 2013, the individual defendants petitioned the County Area Plan Commission to rezone a 58.42-acre tract from agricultural/residential to agricultural/intense. The land had been in the family for over 20 years and had been used for ag purposes since at least 1941. From 1994-2013, the property was cropland. The zoning change would allow for the operation of a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). The plaintiffs were two married couples, one of whom built their non-farm residence in 1971 and the other who started using their home as a non-farming residence in 2000 after deciding to retire from farming and sell most of the farmland that the husband had grown up on and lived on since the early 1940s. The plaintiffs attended the hearing and opposed the petition. The retired farmer plaintiff had raised about 200 head of hogs and 200 head of cattle in an area directly adjacent to his home. There also was a confinement building about 700 feet from the plaintiff’s home that contained up to 400 hogs that was used for two years until it burnt down. The area around the plaintiffs’ homes is predominated by agriculture uses, and there are other hog barns near the plaintiff’s property. The Commission approved the zoning change and the defendant obtained the necessary permits to build an 8,000-head CAFO one quarter of a mile from the retired farmer plaintiff’s home. The plaintiffs did not appeal.
In late 2015, the plaintiff sued the defendant (the retired farmer plaintiff’s cousin and two nephews) for nuisance and negligence and challenged the state’s Right-to-Farm Act (RTFA) as unconstitutional. The plaintiff also claimed that another part of state law (known as the “Agricultural Canon”) which requires state law to be construed to “protect the rights of farmers to choose among all generally accepted farming and livestock production practices, including the use of ever-changing technology,” was unconstitutional. The defendant asserted the RTFA as a defense, and the state joined the suit to defend the constitutionality of the Agricultural Canon.
The trial court granted the defendant summary judgment. On appeal, the appellate court affirmed, holding that the plaintiffs’ nuisance, negligence, and trespass claims were barred by the RTFA. The appellate court also determined that the plaintiffs’ various claims that the RTFA was unconstitutional were futile. As to the RTFA, the appellate court determined that the retired farmer plaintiff essentially “came to the nuisance” when they retired and switched their farming and livestock operation to purely residential with full knowledge of the surrounding ag uses. This plaintiff came to the nuisance by not moving away before the CAFO was built.
As to the rural residential plaintiff (as well as the retired farmer plaintiff), the court noted that a 2005 amendment to the RTFA meant that the change in the nature of the individual defendants’ farming operation from crops to a large-scale confinement hog operation was not a significant change that would make the RTFA inapplicable.
The appellate court also determined that the defendant was not operating the confinement facility negligently which would have eliminated the RTFA as a defense. In addition, the defendant also had obtained all necessary permits to operate the CAFO. The appellate court also upheld the constitutionality of the RTFA, finding that it was within the legislature's legitimate constitutional authority, and determined that the RTFA had not “taken” the plaintiffs property. While the plaintiff may have experienced a reduction in value due to the presence of the nearby CAFO, existing caselaw did not indicate that this amounted to a taking. On this point, the court noted that the plaintiff continued to live in his home and alleged no distinct, investment-backed expectations that the CAFO had frustrated. The plaintiff also claimed that the RTFA unconstitutionally separated rural dwellers into those engaged in ag operations on land that has been consistently farmed for at least the prior year, and those living in rural areas that don’t farm. Under the RTFA, farmers can sue either other farmers or non-farmers for nuisance, but non-farmers can only sue other non-farmers for nuisance. The appellate court determined that the distinction was not unconstitutional because the state had a rational basis for the distinction in terms of conserving, protecting, and encouraging the development and improvement of agricultural land for the production of food and other agricultural products, and that the distinction was applied uniformly. The appellate court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Agricultural Canon for lack of jurisdiction.
Several observations about the case can be made.
- The appellate court in Himsel, determined that the RTFA applied because the change in the nature of the defendant’s hog operation from row crop farming to a CAFO operation involving 8,000 hogs was “not a significant change” that would make the RTFA inapplicable. In other words, 8,000 hogs in a confinement building raised by a contracting party that likely doesn’t make management decisions concerning the hogs, may or may not report the associated contract income as farm income on Schedule F, doesn't report building rent as farm income, and cannot pledge the hogs as loan collateral, was somehow not significantly different from 200 hogs and 200 head of cattle raised by a farmer with associated crop ground who managed the diversified operation. Just the sheer number of hogs alone stands out in stark contrast.
- Unlike the Obert’s Legacy Dairy case where the expansion of the dairy farm did not require a new permit, the hog operation in Himsel required a change in the existing zoning of the tract.
- The plaintiffs in Himsel were found to have essentially come to the nuisance because one of them chose to retire from farming and remain on the land that he had lived on for nearly 80 years, and the other didn’t move from the rural home they built in 1971. In reaching this conclusion the court determined that an 8,000-head hog confinement operation and the presence of 3.9 million gallons of untreated hog manure was comparable to farming in this area in 1941.
- The Himsel court determined that a “taking” had not occurred because the plaintiff had not sold his home and moved away from the place where he grew up and lived all of his life. The court did not address the implications of whether its opinion essentially granted the CAFO an easement to produce odors across the plaintiffs’ property.
It is possible that the Himsel decision could be transferred to the Indiana Supreme Court for review. It’s also possible that the Indiana legislature could revisit the RTFA and the 2005 amendment that appears to have resulted in a construction that allows a CAFO of any size to be built in any place with a history of agricultural activity at any time in the past that predates the plaintiff’s use. While the original idea behind right-to-farm legislation in general was to protect and incentivize multi-generation farming operations that are often significantly tied to the land and the local communities, the Himsel decision is difficult to square with those ideals. That’s the case even though the court may be right in its construction of the statutory language at issue. If that’s correct, the policy of the Indiana RTFA and the future of the Hoosier rural countryside is up to the legislature.