Revised ‘Right to Farm’ bill back, environmentalists still raise a stink

State Sen. Larry Walker (center), a Perry Republican, has proposed a version of a "Right to Farm" bill that softens some of the changes pushed last year. Still, opponents question the need for any change when existing law appears to be working. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

A revamped version of a controversial bill framed last year as a protection for the state’s top industry – agriculture – is running into the same private property concerns that caused the measure to stall.

The so-called “Right to Farm” bill would add new limitations for when nuisance complaints can be filed against farmers. A new iteration unveiled Tuesday afternoon softened some of the proposed changes from last year, but environmentalists and Democrats still argue the current law is working just fine.

Sen. Zahra Karinshak, a Duluth Democrat, said she’s not heard a compelling argument to change the existing “Right to Farm” law that has been in place for decades. And she has raised concerns that the proposal could actually harm farmers with deep roots in a community.

“If you’re an existing farm and you’ve been there since 1800 and somebody moves in, under this new bill, they can have rights superior to your rights,” Karinshak said after a Senate Agriculture Committee meeting held Tuesday. “And so that’s where you’ve got to have a balancing act.”

Karinshak, who is also an attorney, asked repeatedly during Tuesday’s meeting for examples of farmers who were not protected by the existing law. Anticipating the query, the Georgia Poultry Federation brought along a Gordon County chicken farmer named Jody Sullivan who is tied up in a two-year-old lawsuit with neighboring homeowners.

In his case, Sullivan was the newcomer, although he brought his four chicken houses – and the accompanying smells, noise and dust – to an agriculturally zoned area.  Sullivan said he’s paid thousands of dollars in legal bills out of pocket.

“It’s really getting hard for us to keep going,” Sullivan told lawmakers. “Without saying too much, I don’t know how long we can keep going like we’re going. It’s been two years of just attorneys’ fees.”

A large dairy operation in Sumter County has also been taken to court, with farmers as some of the plaintiffs; that case is still pending, too.

Georgia lawmakers are proposing a law to protect industrial hog farms from “nuisance suits” over their open pit waste lagoons. Successful lawsuits against the world’s top pork producer Smithfield Foods in North Carolina helped spur Georgia legislation last year. This photo is from court exhibits showing Smithfield’s 6,000-head Sholar Farm south of Raleigh.

There may not be widespread nuisance complaints being filed against farmers statewide, but successful lawsuits against the hog industry in North Carolina were enough to send chills across the country in recent years. The bill is considered a top priority for the agricultural industry this session.

“As a state, we have to decide is the No. 1 industry worth protecting?” said Will Bentley, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. “Do we want food that is grown in our state or do we want food that’s grown in south America and central America?”

The current law grants a four-year window for someone to pursue a nuisance complaint. The new proposal would allow for two years, which is a year longer than last year’s bill. It also requires the aggrieved to be a property owner who lives within five miles of their gripe’s target. The Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee did not vote on the measure Tuesday.

Opponents, like Damon Mullis with the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, argued that these changes and others disrupt the balance that the current law provides and hurt long-time residents of rural Georgia. He noted that the proposal now appears to nix protections against urban sprawl – one of the concerns driving the original law.

“For over 30 years, the ‘Right to Farm’ law has worked to protect farmers and rural property owners and now for some reason we’re trying to fix a problem that I don’t think really exists,” Mullis said.

“The law we have works,” he said. “Don’t fix if it’s not broke.”