ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers are seeking to strengthen farmers' protections from being sued over nuisances such as noises, dust and odors, a move that farming advocates cast Friday as a key vote in favor of an embattled agriculture sector, while environmentalists said it would open the door for bad neighbors.
The Senate voted 31-23 for House Bill 1150, sending it back to the House for final approval of changes.
The most important change made in the Senate was a deal to lengthen from one year to two years the amount of time someone has to sue over a nuisance after operations begin. Final passage would mark the end of a multi-year push by state and national farm groups seeking a new lawsuit protection measure to replace the one Georgia has had on the books for decades.
Georgia's current law provides protections to a property owner when new people move in next door. But farming advocates say that framework has grown legally shaky and that encroaching development makes that provision nearly meaningless anyway. Instead, they argue the law should make clear that no farmers can be sued for a nuisance after their farms have been operating for more than two years.
“There's hardly any farms that don't have some development or some neighbors around them," said Sen. Larry Walker, a Perry Republican.
Environmentalists and some small farmers worry the bill could open the way for farmers to make big changes that might hurt the ability of longtime neighbors to enjoy their property. They say nuisance suits are rare in Georgia, but the bill is being pushed by the meat industry to shield its farmers’ harmful activities.
“In real life, nuisances can take many years to manifest themselves," said Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, a Dawson Republican. "Any time a new nuisance is created after the second year of operation, an affected neighbor has no recourse unless they can show the nuisance is a result of bad action, even if the affected neighbor was there first.”
This issue of large-scale animal operations has hung up previous attempts to change the law. The new proposal has a clause that says the one-year timeframe for a lawsuit would start over if an existing farm built what federal officials classify as a medium-sized or large concentrated animal feeding operation for cattle or poultry or a pig feeding operation of any size.
The proposal continues to allow lawsuits against farms that are breaking laws or are operating negligently or improperly, as is the case under current law. Several farmer-senators cast the vote as a way to protect farmers who face other hardships including foreign competition and struggles with large processors that have market power over farmers.
“Who does this bill benefit? It benefits the farm families in our state,” said Tyler Harper, an Ocilla Republican who is the only GOP candidate for agriculture commissioner. “We’ve got to have policies in place that protect our No. 1 industry.”
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