Georgia Capitol revisits property rights as farmers, neighbors clash

Property owner Ruth Wilson looks at a neighboring land whose owner dumps animal and waste sludge on fields to fertilize them outside Lexington, Wilson and her husband own Echo Hill, a non-working farm. They aand six others are suing the neighboring farmer over the smells and alleged hazards his practice creates. The General Assembly is considering legislation to limit such lawsuits. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Property owner Ruth Wilson looks at a neighboring land whose owner dumps animal and waste sludge on fields to fertilize them outside Lexington, Wilson and her husband own Echo Hill, a non-working farm. They aand six others are suing the neighboring farmer over the smells and alleged hazards his practice creates. The General Assembly is considering legislation to limit such lawsuits. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

For some the grass is always smellier on the other side

LEXINGTON, Ga. — Ruth Wilson wrinkles her nose, sniffing the westerly wind drifting across her 29-acre horse farm south of Athens.

“I know what a farm is supposed to smell like,” she said. But the morbid funk on the breeze isn’t manure. Asked to describe it, she pauses, then says “rotting fish and vomit.”

The school teacher and six others are suing a neighboring dairy farmer who spreads processed chicken parts, feathers and egg shells as well as processed sewage, dried manure and food byproducts on fields to enrich the soil, according to court documents.

They say the smell can reach a level equivalent to standing over a dead animal and drives them inside for hours or days, keeps visitors away, attracts insects, endangers their health and lowers their property values.

“When your things infringe on my right to enjoy my property, that’s when we have a problem,” said Wilson, who is suing for damages, fees and expenses claiming nuisance, negligence and trespass.

It’s the kind of lawsuit under scrutiny at the Georgia State Capitol, where some legislators are trying to tighten restrictions on filing lawsuits when a farmer and neighbor clash.

Opponents of House Bill 1150 say it would strongly tip property rights in favor of farmers, food processors and timber operators, leaving neighboring landowners with little ability to protect themselves. And they fear the changes would open the door for massive animal-feeding operations to expand unchecked across Georgia.

Supporters of the legislation say they want to reduce threats against farmers, especially at a time when the pandemic has disrupted food production, delivery and prices. Agriculture is the state’s largest industry with farm goods bringing in an estimated $12 billion yearly and supporting more than 300,000 jobs, according to the University of Georgia.

Although there have been few lawsuits to date, “farmers farm on very small margins, and any kind of legal actions can put them out of business,” said Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, a peach grower and HB 1150′s main sponsor.

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The bill is similar to recent legislation pushed in states across the nation to limit farmer liability. The bills have been been promoted by industry groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Georgia Poultry Federation.

With Georgia’s population growing, there could be more such conflicts in the coming years as exurban areas and vacation or retirement homes increasingly bump up against farmland.

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A truck arrives carrying materials to dump on fields as soil amendments next to Ruth Wilson's small horse farm in Oglethorpe County in February. Wilson and neighbors are suing the landowner for the overpowering smells and problems they claim the operation is creating. Their suit and Environmental Protection Division documents say the amendments include dead chicken body parts, food processing waste and processed sewage sludge. The materials attracted a flock of vultures the day the photo was taken. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A truck arrives carrying materials to dump on fields as soil amendments next to Ruth Wilson's small horse farm in Oglethorpe County in February. Wilson and neighbors are suing the landowner for the overpowering smells and problems they claim the operation is creating.  Their suit and Environmental Protection Division documents say the amendments include dead chicken body parts, food processing waste and processed sewage sludge. The materials attracted a flock of vultures the day the photo was taken. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
A truck arrives carrying materials to dump on fields as soil amendments next to Ruth Wilson's small horse farm in Oglethorpe County in February. Wilson and neighbors are suing the landowner for the overpowering smells and problems they claim the operation is creating. Their suit and Environmental Protection Division documents say the amendments include dead chicken body parts, food processing waste and processed sewage sludge. The materials attracted a flock of vultures the day the photo was taken. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Georgia already has a decades-old Right to Farm law. It says if a farm has operated legally for a least a year, it is protected from claims by neighbors who move in about smells, noise, traffic or other nuisances. Existing neighbors can make nuisance claims within four years after a problem starts.

HB 1150 does away with stipulations about who was there first and says if a farm has been operating for a year it shall not be deemed a nuisance. If a farm changes and becomes a concentrated animal feeding operation — the type that typically disturbs neighbors with smells and pollutants — the one-year clock starts anew.

Opponents say one year isn’t enough time. Donna Blanton, a co-plaintiff in the Athens-area lawsuit, said she spent months approaching the county, the farmer, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Department of Agriculture to try to figure out what was happening and her options.

Why it matters

Where property rights start and end between neighbors has long been a thorny issue.

Legislation being debated at the state Capitol would tip rights strongly in favor of farmers, who say they need protection from nuisance lawsuits as Georgia’s population grows.

Critics say it diminishes other property owners’ rights and could spawn huge animal-feeding operations like those in neighboring North Carolina that disrupt communities and hurt the environment.

Operations also can start slowly and build up to the point of being a problem after the one-year window closes.

Robert Mowrey, the attorney for Jeff Smith of Smith Land & Cattle Company, the Madison County dairy operator being sued, did not return calls or emails. Mowrey told Georgia Health News last year the fertilizers ”provide important nutrient values to soil” and are “vital to producing feed for the cattle.’’

Those pushing the state bill note farmers still must follow environmental or farming regulations, and they say the industry is highly regulated. Land applications like Smith’s require permits and monitoring, though he has been cited and fined twice by the state for violations, according to EPD records.

“This bill does not change anything for a bad actor,” said Will Bentley of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, which lobbied for and supports the legislation because it gives farmers more certainty to invest in operations.

Dickey said the bill is not designed to promote industrial agriculture, but to protect family farms. But neither Dickey nor other supporters interviewed knew of any farm that has been sued out of business. And such suits are typically against large animal operations.

HB 1150 passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday. The bill still requires House and Senate approval to become law.

Georgia’s agricultural lands are already shrinking. More than a million acres, about 10% of state farmland, have been lost to development and other pressures or left fallow since 1997, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Row-crop farmer Dick Minor, of Minor Brothers Farms, has not been sued but believes the law needs to be strengthened so businessmen like him can operate with confidence.

“We have tractors running, some running 24 hours a day. We are creating dust, noise, it’s just part of our business. We are not doing anything against the law. Our position is as long as we obey the laws, we ought not to be fighting lawsuits,” said Minor, who grows cucumbers and cotton near Americus in south Georgia.

Georgia is one of many states spurred to revisit right-to-farm laws after hundreds of North Carolinians successfully sued that state’s massive hog industry for tens of millions of dollars in 2018. Farmers there built 4,000 lagoons filled with 10 billion gallons of hog feces, urine and blood that wreaked daily havoc on nearby communities and on the environment when they overflowed. North Carolina’s legislature has since passed laws making it harder to sue farms and limiting damages.

A similar south Georgia case has attracted attention. Leatherbrook Holsteins, a Florida company, bought a 1,000-cow Sumter County dairy in 2008 and added other land, putting an estimated 12,000 cows on it and building large waste lagoons like those in North Carolina, according to a lawsuit filed by 12 other farmers, landowners and the Flint Riverkeeper.

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Property owner Ruth Wilson works with her horses Twister and Romeo on her 29-acre horse farm Echo Hill in Lexington, Georgia. Ruth and six neighbors are suing a neighboring farmer who uses his land to apply treated sludge and processed waste that includes dead chicken parts, which causes bad smells. Wilson and the others claim it is also a health risk and devalues their property. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Property owner Ruth Wilson works with her horses Twister and Romeo on her 29-acre horse farm Echo Hill in Lexington, Georgia. Ruth and six neighbors are suing a neighboring farmer who uses his land to apply treated sludge and processed waste that includes dead chicken parts, which causes bad smells. Wilson and the others claim it is also a health risk and devalues their property. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
Property owner Ruth Wilson works with her horses Twister and Romeo on her 29-acre horse farm Echo Hill in Lexington, Georgia. Ruth and six neighbors are suing a neighboring farmer who uses his land to apply treated sludge and processed waste that includes dead chicken parts, which causes bad smells. Wilson and the others claim it is also a health risk and devalues their property. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The plaintiffs claim the odors disturb their lives and that the waste has polluted streams and groundwater, causing environmental damage. The suit cites a 2011 report from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General saying Georgia has done a poor job regulating animal-feeding operations.

The plaintiffs are asking for relief, damages and litigation costs. Attorneys on both sides said they are in negotiations for a settlement and declined to comment.

Georgia is not known for cattle or hog operations, but it is the nation’s largest producer of chickens, growing about $4 billion worth a year. Chicken operations qualify as concentrated animal feeding operations when they have 30,000 to 125,000 birds, depending on how waste is handled.

A rezoning application in northwest Georgia’s Gordon County last year set off fears among residents and environmental groups that concentrated animal feeding operations are creeping this way. A businessman applied to put as many as two dozen 600-foot-long chicken houses on one farm. County commissioners, after community outcry, imposed a temporary moratorium and changed local ordinances to give themselves the power to approve large chicken operations. The businessman withdrew his request.

Still, others already are dealing with the outfall in Gordon County, where chicken houses are a key part of the local economy.

“It’s a situation where the money is overrunning the little man,” said Eddie Smith, a 66-year-old disabled lineman who lives on 32 acres.

About five years ago, someone bought land next to him, cleared it and put up eight chicken houses. He got stormwater runoff, bad smells, noise and dander blown across his property by massive chicken-house ventilation fans.

Smith sued and signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of a settlement. He still smells the chickens.

“I don’t see why they are changing the law to where you can’t sue someone when they infringe on your rights. That is stupid to me,” said Smith.

Agriculture is Georgia’s biggest industry

Farming and related businesses produce $71.8 billion

Top Crops:

Poultry: $3.8 billion

Beef: $654 million

Dairy: $303 million

Timber: $654 million

Greenhouse/turf: $784 million

Peanuts: $655 million

Cotton: $835 million

*University of Georgia, average from 2020-2022 reports