One month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the appeal of an Iowa Supreme Court ruling overturning that state's "right to farm" law. The court's action, or rather inaction, was done without comment and remains open to speculation over why the case was not heard. This offers little solace for farmers and their allies in Iowa who now fear widespread legal challenges to their way of life.
Iowa legislators tried to deal with the anticipated problems or conflicts between rural neighbors ny passing the "right to farm" law in 1982. It was designed to protect farmers from the threat of lawsuits brought by neighbors. Many modern agricultural practices, such as mega-hog farms or chemical spraying, are often viewed as nuisances by neighbors. This legal immunity protected Iowa farmers from lawsuits over the "operation or expansion of the agricultural activities of [a] farm" located "within an agricultural area" as long as the nuisance does not result from a violation of a federal statute, regulation, state statute, or rule" and the farm owner or operator was not found negligent. "Additionally, there is no immunity from suits because of an injury or damage to a person or property caused by the farm or farm operation before the creation of the agricultural area."
The law allowed local county officials to designate "agricultural areas" for protection. This is part of Iowa's statewide effort aimed at "agricultural land preservation" in the face of developmental pressures on behalf of nonagricultural residents in traditional farming communities. Specifically, a person could not buy land adjacent to a farm, build a new home and then take his farmer neighbor to court over issues such as odor or dust associated with farming.
Officials in Kossuth County designated approximately 960 acres of farmland as an agricultural area subject to protection under this law in January 1995. Three months later, a group of neighbors filed suit in Iowa District Court claiming that this action violated their rights under both the Iowa and U.S. Constitutions. They said such a law denied them the right to protect their property from potential actions by neighbors that could adversely affect the value or marketability of that property without fair compensation. An interesting feature of this lawsuit is that while both sides agreed that no such nuisance had yet occurred, the fear was that the immunity protection removed the option of legal redress from the nonagricultural neighbors.
Initially, the Iowa District Court threw out the lawsuit but the Iowa Supreme Court heard the matter on appeal and reversed the lower court in September 1998. In effect, they agreed with the plaintiffs that the Iowa "right to farm" law was unconstitutional under both the state and federal Constitutions. This infuriated farm groups across Iowa who attempted to take the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In their brief to the high court, the coalition of farm groups claimed that if the Iowa Supreme Court decision was allow to stand more than 100,000 farmers in that state could face the prospect of costly nuisance lawsuits just because "they look and sound and smell like farms." The brief also warned that action by the Iowa Supreme Court posed a legal threat to "right to farm" laws in numerous other states as well. Iowa's new Governor Tom Vilsack was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling made it very likely that Iowa state lawmakers would revisit this issue.
Iowa farmers and officials aren't the only ones shocked and surprised by this set of events. Scott Jensen, State Assembly Speaker in neighboring Wisconsin, immediately announced that he was asking that legislature's legal counsel to review the Iowa decision and evaluate its likely impact in Wisconsin. Jensen, a Republican from Waukesha, said he was proud of the Wisconsin "right to farm" law among the first legislation passed when the Republicans assumed the majority in the Assembly in 1995.
Illinois does not have a similar "right to farm" law but the recent controversy over regulating large livestock operations touches on some of the same issues and concerns. The crux of Knox County's ongoing case against Jim & Doug Baird and their Highlands hog farm near Williamsfield is due to be presented to the Illinois Supreme Court. In that case Knox County State's Attorney Paul Mangieri has argued that there must be some logical limitations on the Illinois law that prohibits local governmental control of agricultural land use.
Knox County attempted to enforce zoning restrictions to block construction of the Highlands' large scale hog farrowing operation contending that the very size of this operation takes it out of the realm of traditional agriculture. While Mangieri has been unsuccessful so far in both the Circuit and Appellate courts, a strong dissenting opinion by one member of the three-judge Appellate Court panel has offered him some reason for optimism.
Asked if the Iowa court drama may have some impact on Knox County's legal battle, Mangieri was blunt and to the point. "While this ruling is amazing in a state as agriculturally-based as Iowa it has no standing whatsoever here in Illinois. The relevant laws in Iowa are totally different from those in Illinois and the facts of our case differ as well. This decision will undoubtedly have significant impact within Iowa but little direct legal application outside of that state. Things could have been much different had the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and issued an opinion supporting the Iowa Supreme Court. It is impossible to interpret meaning into a refusal to hear this case."
While the Iowa ruling will have little effect on the specific Knox County case, it may have far
reaching effect on Illinois. Operators of mega farms and their corporate parents will logically migrate to the least restrictive states, such as Illinois. As recently as this week, Illinois legislators failed to strengthen the Illinois Livestock Facilities Management Act.