LINCOLN — A legislative attempt to expand Nebraska’s Right to Farm Act, sought by farm groups to fend off lawsuits over farming-related nuisances, ran into questions Monday over whether it would grant immunity from all such litigation.
While rural senators defended Legislative Bill 227 as a way to ease fears among livestock producers when expanding their operations, a University of Nebraska law professor and a fellow lawyer, State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said it was unreasonable to give a farming operation immunity from lawsuits from a neighbor over nuisances like odor, dust and flies.
“We’re going to say the doors to the courthouse are closed (to a neighbor),” Lathrop said. “This is fundamentally unfair and probably unconstitutional, and I gotta tell you, it’s not the Nebraska way.”
Nebraska’s current Right to Farm Act, adopted in 1982, protects long-standing farm operations from nuisance lawsuits from newcomers to a rural area. The idea is that the farmer has grandfather rights, and newcomers can’t sue over conditions that existed before they moved in.
But LB 277, which was introduced on behalf of two major farm groups — the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Farm Bureau — would expand that immunity from lawsuits much further.
Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, who is a farmer, said the purpose of the bill is to protect ag producers from lawsuits when they expand an existing operation, and when they use “reasonable techniques” to keep problems like “dust, noise, insects and odors at a minimum.”
Hughes rejected suggestions by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha that LB 277 was aimed at protecting huge corporate farms and not smaller family farms. He said it was about allowing an operation to expand so a son or daughter could move back to a farm.
“This bill is intended to protect those who are doing this the right way,” Hughes said.
LB 277 comes at a time when many in agriculture are worried about nuisance lawsuits. 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.
Nebraska farmers wishing to build large chicken farms to supply Fremont’s new Costco plant have also run into static in recent months from some neighbors — and Lincoln Premium Poultry, which is contracting for the chickens, supports LB 277. Meanwhile, Gov. Pete Ricketts has said Nebraska needs to be more friendly to such agriculture expansion if the state’s economy is to grow.
A recent analysis of LB 277 by Anthony Schutz, a University of Nebraska law professor, called the bill a “remarkable expansion” of the current Right to Farm Act and one that elevates the private property rights of one landowner to use and enjoy his land over the rights of his neighbors. He wrote that county zoning laws were a better way to regulate farm nuisances than eliminating nuisance lawsuits.
After three hours of debate on Monday, the Legislature moved on to other issues. LB 277 could return to the agenda if Hughes can show that he has 33 supporters to fend off a filibuster. It was not immediately clear whether he could muster that much support.