ATLANTA — As always, it was a question of 'Whose property rights?' when Georgia lawmakers on Tuesday considered a bill that would enhance protections for farmers against nuisance lawsuits by neighbors over problems such as odors.
House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman Robert Dickey III told members of his committee that lawmakers need to pass House Bill 1150 to clarify Georgia law to make clear that no farmers could be sued for a nuisance after their farms have been operating for more than a year.
"That's what this bill is about, is just trying to give farmers some protection to farm their land like they've always done it, when you have some neighbors who might move in and have a little different opinion," Dickey, a Musella Republican told the committee.
The panel is supposed to vote on the measure later.
But environmentalists and some small farmers worry the bill could open the way for farmers to make big changes that might hurt the ability of longtime neighbors to enjoy their property. They say nuisance suits are rare in Georgia, but the bill is being pushed by the meat industry to shield its farmers' harmful activities.
Charlotte Swansea, who said her family owns a 300-acre farm in Gordon County, said she would prefer no changes to the current law, which only protects farms from lawsuits over "changed conditions," usually meaning residential subdivisions or commercial developments on adjoining properties. The new bill would provide protection after a year without reference to whether conditions have changed, stripping out that language.
Swansea said she fears the new bill would open the door to farming operations she would find troublesome, such as extremely large poultry farms.
"We don't want to have nuisance farmers ... coming into our county," Swansea said.
This same issue of large-scale animal operations has hung up previous attempts to change the law. The new proposal has a clause that says the one-year timeframe for a lawsuit would start over if an existing farm built what federal officials classify as a medium-sized or large concentrated animal feeding operation for cattle or poultry or a pig feeding operation of any size.
The proposal continues to allow lawsuits against farms that are breaking laws or are operating negligently or improperly, as is the case under current law.
"It's attempting to craft a balance of the various interests involved, inserting some additional protections for people who are doing it right, but not trying to protect operations who are not doing it right" said Rep. Rob Leverett, an Elberton Republican.
Some farm groups say the current measure does not go far enough. Bryan Tolar, a lobbyist for the Georgia Urban Agriculture Council, said lawmakers should write in specific prohibitions against lawsuits over dust, noise and smoke. He said sod farmers, a big part of his group, often face complaints over dust blowing from fields after sod is harvested. He also said forest owners can face complaints over smoke from controlled burns of timberland.
But those, like the other concerns covered by the bill, would run up against the rights of others to enjoy their property, opponents warn.
"What you're saying is people who have long standing private property rights no longer have any ability to protect themselves from newly arriving animal operations or other types of agricultural operations," said April Lipscomb of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Lipscomb warned the protections could be struck down, citing a 1998 Iowa decision that found a law preventing lawsuits amounted to an unconstitutional taking of neighbors' property.