Credit: Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder (February 2022 file photo)
Farmer nuisance suit protection, or ‘bad neighbor bill’? Ga. House gives OK
A controversial bill that proponents say is meant to keep farmers out of court has again collided with private property concerns and fears the measure will make way for large-scale industrial farms.
A similar proposal, dubbed the “right to farm” act, stalled a couple years ago after backers bemoaned changes made in the Senate.
A revamped version cleared the House Thursday with a 102-62 vote after an hour-long debate where opponents touted their agricultural bona fides — including one rural Democrat who held up her Farm Bureau membership card — before launching into their objections.
Critics have questioned why changes should be made to a decades-old law that appears to have served Georgia farmers well even as subdivisions and other development popped up around them. Environmentalists have gone further, warning of large corporate farms and branding it the “bad neighbor bill.”
“Where are the lawsuits? I can’t find them,” said Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Junction City Democrat. “Where are the nuisances? Where are the farmers who have been harmed? Whose property rights are we taking care of if we do away with this law?”
The bill’s backers have argued the changes are intended to prevent a potential onslaught of nuisance claims from people who may move out to the country and then object to the noise, dust and smells coming from nearby farms.
Lobbyists representing the state’s prized agricultural industry, including poultry producers, have championed the measure for years. Chicken broilers represent the state’s most valuable agricultural product.
The sponsor, Rep. Robert Dickey, a Musella Republican and peach farmer who chairs the House agriculture committee, defended the changes as needed to keep newcomers from shutting down farms. Several supporters have voiced concern about the country’s shrinking farmland.
“I want to go on record to say this bill is not about big farming, but about being able to keep our small family farms, rural farms and even urban farms operating without having to worry about (nuisance claims),” Dickey said.
Concerns the bill is designed to shield massive meat producers are partly due to the bill’s origin. The push for changes here in Georgia started in 2019 in response to eye-popping jury verdicts against hog producers in North Carolina who had been storing smelly pig waste in ponds and spreading it across fields as fertilizer.
This year’s version tries to address those concerns by spelling out that hog-feeding operations of any size and producers with, for example, more than 300 cattle would not benefit from the broadened protections. That means the one-year timeframe for a nuisance claim would start over if a facility began one of these animal operations.
But the proposal would strip all mention of urban sprawl and “changed conditions” around the farm, which critics argue make the state’s current law clear and strong.
There are also differing interpretations for how long someone would have to file a nuisance claim, with opponents arguing the bill would limit it to one year and supporters saying there would still be four years to file a claim for an alleged nuisance that happens in the first year.
State Rep. Stacey Evans, an Atlanta Democrat and plaintiff’s attorney, predicted a “rush to the courthouse” if the measure becomes law, which she also argued is unconstitutional.
“We’re adding uncertainty, and in addition to adding uncertainty, we’re infringing on private property rights,” Evans said. “This is no longer about who was there first, which is what it’s been forever – which I think, incidentally, is unconstitutional and is going to lead to a lawsuit about that.
“I don’t think this bill says what it means or wants to mean what it says,” she added.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.