World Herald: Bill that would protect farmers in legal battles with neighbors advances — Is it Right to Farm or Right to Harm?

Bill that would protect farmers in legal battles with neighbors advances

· By Martha Stoddard / World-Herald Bureau


LINCOLN — Concessions by farm groups helped win first-round approval Wednesday for a bill to protect growing farm and ranch operations from legal action by their neighbors.

But Legislative Bill 227 advanced only after its introducer, State Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, promised to keep working on concerns raised by opponents. Lawmakers approved a filibuster-ending cloture motion with one vote to spare before advancing the bill on a 31-7 vote.

Hughes said he introduced the measure on behalf of two major farm groups — the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Farm Bureau. He and other supporters cast the issue as one of helping the state’s largest industry.

“Let’s consider what we can do here to help grow our state,” said Sen. Tom Briese of Albion.

Opponents described the issue as a fight between rural residents and large agricultural interests, especially large corporate interests.

“At the end of the day, who’s going to pay for that growth?” asked Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha.

Hughes’ proposal seeks to expand legal protections offered under Nebraska’s existing Right to Farm Act, adopted in 1982.

Current law protects farm operations from lawsuits over dust, noise, insects, odors and other farm-related nuisances filed by newcomers to a rural area. The idea is that the farmer has “first-in-time” rights and newcomers can’t sue over conditions that existed before they moved in.

As introduced, LB 227 would have expanded protections to farms and ranches if they made changes in their operations or if they worked to reduce potential nuisances and comply with zoning regulations and state and federal laws.

The bill would have applied if a farm operation changed hands, increased in size, converted from one type of farm to another, altered its participation in a government program or adopted new technology.

An amendment adopted Wednesday would give neighbors two years to sue over nuisances created after a farm or ranch made any of the specified changes. It would require that farms and ranches work to reduce nuisances and comply with laws and zoning regulations to have protection against lawsuits from new neighbors.

Hughes said the amendment was an attempt to balance the interests of all landowners. It would give farmers some legal certainty when making changes in their operations without closing the courthouse doors to affected neighbors.

“We need to protect farmers who have made significant investments,” he said. “Farmers want to be good neighbors.”

Opponents raised concerns that included when the two-year clock would start ticking and how to define when a farm is converted from one type to another, such as switching from raising corn to intensive animal production.

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said lawmakers should not take away people’s ability to defend their property from bad neighbors. She told of one family whose children’s illnesses are exacerbated by the fumes from a nearby animal-production facility.

“It’s more than stink. It’s more than beetles,” she said.

LB 227 comes at a time when many in agriculture are worried about lawsuits over nuisances. Last year, Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer, was ordered to pay $470 million in damages to three neighbors of its North Carolina hog farms because of obnoxious and persistent odors.

It also comes as rural neighbors have been embroiled in controversy over proposals to build large chicken farms to supply Fremont’s new Costco plant. Lincoln Premium Poultry, which is contracting for the chickens, supports LB 227.