Georgia House OKs bill making it harder for neighbors to sue farmers

House Bill 1150 could open the door to concentrated animal feeding operations, which house thousands or tens of thousands of animals. It would limit lawsuits against them or other agricultural operations for smells, noise or other problems. CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com

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House Bill 1150 could open the door to concentrated animal feeding operations, which house thousands or tens of thousands of animals. It would limit lawsuits against them or other agricultural operations for smells, noise or other problems. CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com

Debate over property rights moves to Senate

The state House passed a bill Thursday rebalancing Georgia’s property rights in favor of farmers when there are disputes with neighbors over traffic, pollutants, odors, noise or other environmental problems.

House Bill 1150, the Freedom to Farm bill, passed 102-62. It will have to be debated and passed by the Senate for a chance to become law.

Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation would clear up ambiguity in Georgia’s current right to farm law. But debate on the House floor showed plenty of ambiguity remained in legislators’ minds about why the bill was needed and what it will do.

The proposed changes will make it harder for people who live near a farm to sue a farmer or agricultural operation for damaging their property or unreasonably interfering with their rights to use or enjoy it. It does so by limiting the time and circumstances for filing a suit.

Opponents say the bill erodes property rights of others and will make it harder for environmental groups to sue a farm over polluting a public resource, such as groundwater or a river. They also say the proposed law would attract large concentrated animal-feeding operations that have caused community and environmental problems in other states, mostly from the amounts of animal waste they produce.

Those pushing the bill say it will protect farmers and Georgia’s $12 billion agriculture industry in a time when breaks in supply chains have limited supplies of meat and vegetables, driving prices higher.

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Dickey said the legislation would protect family farms from “multiple lawsuits from neighbors who want them to go away.” He also said the proposed changes “close loopholes” and give farmers more confidence to invest in operations.

But those speaking against it questioned his facts and reasoning.

Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, a member of the rural caucus, said she asked those supporting the bill how many such suits were filed in Georgia or about farmers who had been sued out of business. She said she got no answers and, after looking for such suits herself, found “we have not had a case that overturned anyone’s right to farm.”

She also said Georgia’s existing right to farm law is praised as one of the best in the nation.

Georgia has the country’s most lucrative poultry operations and groups such as the Georgia Poultry Federation, American Farm Bureau and Georgia Farm Bureau are supporting the bill. Georgia Farm Bureau President Tom McCall, a former state representative, tried to pass an even more stringent bill in 2020 after massive hog operations in North Carolina were sued successfully.