ATLANTA — A recent court ruling awarding monetary damages to neighbors of a North Carolina industrial hog farm is stirring interest among Georgia agribusiness organizations in renewing a push to update the state’s Right to Farm Act.
But the Nov. 20 judgment a federal appeals court handed down against giant pork producer Smithfield Foods also served notice to environmental groups that defeated the legislation during this year’s General Assembly session to gear up for another round in 2021.
“I think it amps up the stakes,” said Gordon Rogers, executive director of Albany-based Flint Riverkeeper, one of the groups that joined forces to oppose changes to the Right to Farm Act this year.
The bill would make it more difficult for property owners living in areas zoned for agricultural use to file nuisance suits against nearby farms generating offensive noise, dust, smells or sludge runoff.
While Cherokee County has lead the Atlanta suburbs in growth in recent years, more than half the land in the county remains zoned for agricultural use.
Under an amendment to the original bill approved on the Senate floor, lawsuits would have to be filed within two years after a nuisance occurs. More restrictive language in the original legislation would have required lawsuits to be brought within two years of an applicant obtaining a permit to start or change a farm operation.
The Republican-controlled Georgia Senate passed the bill in June in a vote along party lines, but it failed to reach the floor of the state House of Representatives.
Supporters say the original Right to Farm Act the legislature enacted during the 1980s contains ambiguities that expose farmers to costly lawsuits that could be avoided by a clearer statute.
“Agriculture is our No.-1 industry,” said state Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “If companies are nervous to invest in rural Georgia because they feel our law is not strong enough to protect against frivolous lawsuits, we need to address it.”
The legislation’s opponents say it is intended to shield large industrial farms not only against lawsuits from an influx of suburban homeowners who find farm operations offensive, but even from other farmers who don’t want giant livestock operations in their midst polluting their air and water.
“Major industrial row crop farmers as well as the organic types who opposed this bill showed this mantra [the bill’s supporters] were pushing that this was good for all Georgia farmers was not true,” Rogers said.
Rogers said there’s no need to update the Right to Farm Act because the original law already contains sufficient protections for farmers when neighbors who object to the sights, smells and sounds of farming move into their vicinity.
“I cannot and you cannot move next to a farming operation now and bring a complaint,” he said. “If [the farm is] already there, you have no right. … That problem was solved in the 1980s.”
But Mike Giles, president of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation, said the law needs updating.
“It has to do with the determination of what is a changed condition,” he said.
As an example, Giles explained, a farm located in an agricultural zone near a cluster of houses might be left alone until a new homeowner moves in who objects to the farm and files a nuisance suit.
“Is that a changed condition or not?” Giles asked. “I would argue it is, but a court may rule it’s not.”
Walker said the legislation is not an effort to gut existing laws prohibiting large farms from polluting streams and other waterways. Those protections already are in effect in the form of the federal Clean Water Act, he said.
“We were not trying to circumvent the Clean Water Act,” he said. “This was noise, odor, dust, light, that sort of thing.”
But Senate Democrats argued during the June floor debate on the bill that the state and federal environmental agencies in charge of enforcing the Clean Water Act typically offer little protection from violations.
Rogers said the bill fizzled at the end of this year’s legislative session because the level of grassroots opposition scared off lawmakers in an election year.
“They didn’t want to get on the bad side of their constituents,” he said.
Walker said supporters hope to overcome that opposition during the upcoming General Assembly session by stepping up their efforts to educate the legislators they will need to pass it.
“It ended up being a rural-urban fight,” he said of last year’s debate on the bill. “We just have to educate our urban and suburban legislators of the need for it.”