Iowa Right-to-Farm Decision Highlights Importance of Understanding Right-to-Farm Laws Operations

Updated: Apr 5


Image of piglet in barn. Image by United Soybean Board
Image of piglet in barn. Image by United Soybean Board

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Right-to-farm laws have been in the news this summer. North Carolina has seen multi-million dollar verdicts against Smithfield Foods for nuisances caused by hogs farm contracting with Smithfield. At the same time this summer, Iowa has seen a challenge to overturn prior rulings that the state’s right-to-farm is unconstitutional in certain situations. In Honomichi, the Iowa challenge involves two hog farms that neighboring landowners claimed negligent operation and nuisances. The district court agreed that with the neighbors that Iowa’s right-to-farm law was unconstitutionally in this case. On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the hog farms that the district court had failed to apply any facts to the claim the law was unconstitutional. The decision was reversed and sent back to the district court.


Background


This decision centers on two swine farms in Iowa and claims by the neighbors that the farm was negligent in the operation and the farm constituted a nuisance. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued construction permits in 2013 that included requirements on how to construct the hog farm including minimum distances from neighboring houses not owned by the farm. These setback requirements required 0.36 miles or 1875 feet but the nearest neighbors were 0.67 miles from one farm and 0.72 miles from the second farm. The farms were approved to be concentrated animal feeding operations by DNR in 2013.


Lawsuits were filed less than two months after the farms began operation in 2013 by the neighbors. The initial lawsuit was dismissed due to the neighbors failing to fulfill Iowa’s required mediation before filing a nuisance lawsuit. In 2014, the neighbors refiled the lawsuit with sixty-nine plaintiffs. The district court severed the lawsuit between three divisions and this discussion focused on one of the three groups of cases. The division in question granted a motion by the neighbors for summary judgment on the fact that Iowa’s right-to-farm law is unconstitutional as applied to the neighbors. The district court based the decision on case law in Iowa that has found the state’s right-to-farm law unconstitutional when applied in certain situations (Gacke v. Pork Xtra, LLC). The district court granted the motion without providing analysis on how the law impacts.

The hog farms appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Iowa. On appeal, the hog farms argued the district court had misapplied the Gacke decision. The hog farms are also asking the court to reevaluate the Gacke decision because of the regulatory scheme for CAFOs changing in the state.


Court’s Reasoning


In Gacke, the Supreme Court of Iowa found that the state’s right-to-farm law was unconstitutional as applied in that particular case based on a violation of the inalienable right clause of the state’s constitution (for more information on this, check out this previous post – http://bit.ly/2kd70Iu). Based on this decision, the court required a three-prong test to determine the right-to-farm is unconstitutional as applied. The three-prong test requires:

  1. The neighbors received no particular benefit from the nuisance defense grant to the farms other than inuring to the public in general;

  2. Sustained a significant hardship; and

  3. Resided on their property long before the commencement of any animal operation.

Iowa courts have used this three-prong test over the years to determine if the state’s right-to-farm law is unconstitutional as applied in some cases.


In looking at the issue of reevaluating the Gacke decision, the court determined that prior decisions only allow the court to reevaluate when compelling reasons exist to overturn the prior reasoning. The court highlights that the regulatory scheme for CAFOs has changed since the Gacke decision and many of the neighboring landowners involved in the lawsuit have power under that scheme to stop the construction of the hog farms. Additional regulatory standards take into account manure storage, reducing odors, and construction of the barns.


Even with the regulatory changes, the court determines that the Gacke decision and its three-prong test still work with the current conditions. The court also points out that the hog farms and the neighbors had not suggested a compatible alternative standard to apply in these cases and the court could not come up with a satisfactory alternative standard to utilize. The court determines to keep the three-prong test.


It is worth noting for the legal nerds reading this, that one justice was in favor of reevaluating the Gacke decision. Justice Waterman filed a concurrence highlighting, the court wrongly decided Gacke and should have stayed out of policy choices made by the political branches. To this justice, the legislature has decided to pass a law to limit landowners’ ability to recover damages in a nuisance case. This justice points out that Iowa is the only state to have found their right-to-farm law unconstitutional in certain cases.


Turning to the use the three-prong test in this case, the court agrees with the hog farms that the district court did not make any specific factual findings to demonstrate the neighbors meet all three requirements. Based on the disputed facts presented by both parties, the court reasons it was too early to end the case in the pre-trial stages and the district court should have allowed the case to proceed. Based on this reasoning, the Supreme Court of Iowa reversed the district court.