Bill would limit nuisance complaints against Georgia farmers

Gordon County farmer Jody Sullivan was first hit with a nuisance lawsuit against his poultry farm in 2017 and sees “no end in sight” to the complaints. Three years and thousands of dollars later, Sullivan is hoping legislators will limit his neighbors’ abilities to sue him for nuisance.

Neighbors of farmers such as Sullivan, however, disagree. By living next to an animal farm, some people sacrifice their property value, quality of life and health, Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rodgers said. They may want to sue for nuisance if they feel like the use of a neighbor’s property inconveniences their property, and they are currently legally allowed to do so if the farm moved in after them.

House Bill 545 would address Sullivan's hopes to limit his neighbors' lawsuits. The Senate Agriculture Committee voted last week to approve the bill.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton, would create a two-year window for filing any nuisance complaint against a farmer. It also would require the plaintiff in a lawsuit to live within 5 miles of the farm and file the suit within one year of the beginning of the nuisance. Supporters of the bill say it protects farmers against unnecessary lawsuits and helps the No. 1 industry in Georgia, agriculture.

The 1980 Georgia Right to Farm Act limits nuisance complaints. But it allows a four-year window for complaints and only protects farms that were established before nonfarmer neighbors move in.

Critics of the HB 545 say it puts new farmers’ rights over those of residents because of the legal ambiguity and limits on nuisance suits.

They also say the bill removes some protections to farmers that the Right to Farm Act guarantees. State Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth, says she believes HB 545 gives large industrial farms more rights than the previous law. If a large farm moved next to a smaller farm, it would be difficult for the smaller farm to sue for any inconveniences it may face because of the two-year window for complaints, she said.

Rodgers also believes the window is too restrictive and said that “nuisance doesn’t manifest itself until the third or fourth year.”

Karinshak and Rodgers both think HB 545 is unnecessary, and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper lobbyist Kevin Jeselnick agrees. He said the existing Right to Farm Act offers enough protection to farmers and that HB 545 picks winners and losers.

Supporters of HB545 maintain that the original Right to Farm Act does not provide enough protection to farmers such as Sullivan, who says he had no issues the first two years he farmed but was later hit with multiple expensive lawsuits.

It is unclear how many similar nuisance lawsuits have occurred in Georgia. During a hearing on the bill, Karinshak repeatedly asked for the numbers of nuisance complaints filed against farmers, but she didn’t get an answer.

Environmentalists also have concerns that HB 545 could have a negative impact on water quality. Sierra Club lobbyist Mark Woodall said some nuisance complaints have come from neighbors of farmers who say their water sources had been contaminated.

Woodall brings up a North Carolina case where residents sued a nearby hog farm for stench, claiming that their property values plummeted because of the smell. The farm kept animal waste in lagoons that turned bright pink from bacterial overgrowth. He said pesticides and animal waste can contaminate water sources shared with neighbors if such lagoons overflow.

However, Georgia Farm Bureau lobbyist Alex Bradford says the law doesn’t protect farmers who are operating illegally or violating environmental regulations such as the federal Clean Water Act.

“Nuisance is a complaint,” he said. “Contamination is not.”

Bradford added: “There is a commonsense expectation that odors occur near farms. Water issues are different.”

The bill is now before the Senate Rules Committee, and supporters hope it will make it to the floor for debate this session after failing last year.

Karinshak says there will be pushback.