State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Right-to-Farm means in cases of 'nuisance' farms, plaintiffs are often out of luck

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jun 5, 2018 5:51 AM
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In this May 21, 2018 photo, a sign opposing an industrial hog farm is displayed at a home in Berwick, Pa. Residents who complain about foul smells from the nearby hog farm have taken their fight to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam)

 

(Salem Township) -- For several years, a hog farm in Luzerne County has been under legal fire for emitting a stench that people say can make the surrounding area almost unlivable.

A lawsuit is now awaiting consideration before the state Supreme Court.

But the outlook isn't good--and that's largely because Pennsylvania law makes it near-impossible to sue farms for nuisances like smells.

Will-O-Bett Farm's hog feeding operation--which is causing the smell--began in 2013 in Salem Township. People living nearby sued in county court the following year, and the legal volleys have been ongoing since.

Those disgruntled neighbors have repeatedly lost in lower courts, because the commonwealth's Right to Farm Act effectively prohibits nuisance lawsuits if a farm is complying with the law and not causing any health issues. The law also keeps municipalities from passing their own regulations to override it.

Every state some form of Right to Farm law.

Rusty Rumley, an attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center, said Pennsylvania's is somewhere in the middle in terms of strictness.

"Generally speaking, the more important agriculture is to a state's economy, the stronger the Right to Farm protections will be," he said.

Republican state Representative and frequent farming advocate Mark Keller, of Cumberland County, acknowledged that can put farmers' neighbors in a tough spot.

But he said it's a necessary tradeoff.

"If we continue to push the agricultural industry out of Pennsylvania--or even the United States--then we end up importing our food products," he said.

Keller added, an underlying problem is farms being sold and turned into housing developments, which can lead to tension between the remaining farmers and their new neighbors.

"There's only so much land--you can't make more of that. And, you know, the farms are taken and you've got one farm left amongst the development. That's what creates the issue," he said. 

He said he thinks there's one potential solution, though: if more county governments participate in the commonwealth's Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program--under which they can purchase easements that guarantee farmland stays farmland--it could ultimately keep farms clustered, and away from neighborhoods.

Pennsylvania already has the highest rate of farmland preservation nationwide.

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