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Agricultural Protection Acts


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The story of America has been in part the story of the urbanization of our land.  Lands that were yesterday devoted to agricultural uses are today the sites of homes and commercial activities.  In a brief  time, large agricultural acreage can be subdivided into tracts of suburban housing.  Unfortunately, the proximity of such new urban uses to older agricultural uses sometimes creates conflicts among land occupiers.  The site that was last year an isolated horse farm may today be next to a large residential development.  The sights, sounds and smells that are taken for granted in an agricultural setting may become extremely annoying and offensive to suburban neighbors.

In some such circumstances, suburban neighbors have brought lawsuits (called nuisance lawsuits) against those people responsible for agricultural activities that offend their senses.  This may seem unfair to the farmer or rancher who, after all, was there first.  So long as the farmer or rancher does not change his or her operations to become more intrusive and so long as he or she farms or ranches according to accepted standards in the industry, should he or she not have the right to continue to operate as before?

(Scroll down to view state statutes.)

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Every state has a law designed to protect agricultural operations (farms, ranches, forests) from the encroachments of urban development.  While there can be some dispute as to what activity qualifies as agricultural, certainly most commercial horse operations would qualify.  Most of these statutes were enacted in the early 1980s. Many are called "Right to Farm" acts.  Most of these laws provide that if the agricultural operation was in existence for a specified period of time prior to the conflicting urban use, and so long as the agricultural use has not materially changed and the agricultural operation is not conducted in a substandard fashion, it is protected from nuisance lawsuits.  The qualifying period varies from state to state but is usually at least one year of prior agricultural use.

There are two types of nuisance lawsuits: those brought by a private landowner against a neighbor and those brought by a public entity, such as a city, township or county, against a nuisance, declared by law to be a "public nuisance" that offends a locality.  Both types are prohibited by agricultural protection acts.

Sometimes, a nuisance lawsuit seeks to recover money to compensate for past intrusions and sometimes the person or governmental entity bringing the lawsuit is seeking a court order (called an injunction or abatement order) to shut down the offending land use.  Agricultural protection acts deal with both of these kinds of nuisance lawsuits.

In addition to nuisance lawsuits, local governmental units, such as cities and counties, sometimes attempt to impose zoning or other land use restrictions on neighboring agricultural operations.  If permitted, these can effectively shut down a horse farm by zoning it into non-compliance with local laws or by making continuing operation uneconomical.  Most agricultural protection acts also speak to this circumstance and prohibit local governments from adversely zoning  agricultural operations that satisfy the requirements of the statute.  In those states in which an agricultural protection act does not cover this situation, the doctrine of nonconforming use in zoning law does; so long as the land use was lawful when initiated and has not substantially changed, it is protected from subsequent inconsistent zoning ordinances.

Many Right to Farm statutes specifically do not provide protection for agricultural activities that cause water pollution.  Such polluting farm activities are fully subject to nuisance lawsuits without the benefits of defenses provided by agricultural protection acts.  They are also regulated by the federal Clean Water Act.

In addition to Right to Farm statutes enacted in the early 1980s, more recently some states have enacted statutes authorizing the creation of conservation easements.  Under such programs, the government purchases the right to urban development of agricultural land in order to keep the character of the land rural.  As part of that pact, agricultural activities are protected from public or private nuisance lawsuits.  While we have not attempted systematically to collect all of these statutes, sometimes they are interwoven with Right to Farm statutes.  When that happens, we have included such statutes here for the sake of completeness.

The statutes and other documents in this area are reviewed each two years and changed as needed.  Therefore, you should not rely upon them being current without assuring yourself they have not been amended or repealed after they were posted on this site.

You should not rely on these documents in planning your equine business or other activities, but should consult an attorney knowledgeable in equine law in your state.

This page was initially posted on March 20, 1998.
All 50 statutes were reviewed, revised as needed for updating, and re-posted in June 2001.  All statutes were reviewed in April 2003 and changes posted in August 2003.


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