Updated: Jul 16, 2020
By Ashley Ellixson
Paul, Mae Johnson and I wrote a series of articles discussing the role that right-to-farm laws play in the agriculture industry. Today, I will outline what life was like before such laws and what the legal implications were. Mae highlighted the mediation process under Maryland’s right-to-farm law while Paul compared Maryland’s right-to- farm law with those in other states. Our intentions are to shed light on what can be a confusing area of law and illustrate how the state of Maryland utilizes its right-to-farm law in actual practice.
Let me paint you a picture. It’s the year 1911 and the Spur family began farming in Maricopa County, AZ, about 15 miles west of central Phoenix. In 1956, Spur’s predecessors began developing feedlots. In May of 1959, Del Webb began planning an urban retirement community to be known as “Sun City” 10.5 miles north of Spur’s feedlot. Before the development of Sun City, there was nothing near the feedlot for miles. By May of 1960, there were 450 to 500 houses completed or under construction. By 1962, the area where both industries resided looked like the following:
By 1965, the Del Webb community had expanded, coming within 500 feet of Spur’s feedlots. The enterprises now looked like this:
As a result, which you might have already guessed, having a large neighborhood abutting a cattle feedlot brought many issues. The smell of manure and abundance of flies were affecting the current residents of Sun City and inhibiting housing sales. Del Webb brought suit for an injunction against Spur, which would have forced Spur to halt or move its business. Ultimately the court granted the injunction, but required Del Webb to pay Spurs the costs of moving or shutting down the operation.
Reasoning Behind the Court’s Decision
You might be wondering why the court forced the Spur feedlot to move and required Del Webb to pay for the expenses associated with the relocation? First, this case came about before there was any such thing as a “right-to-farm” law. Right-to-farm laws generally provide immunity from nuisance actions brought against agricultural producers as a result of conditions created by their operation as long as certain requirements, stated by statute, are fulfilled. Please see my post What Are These Right-to-Farm Laws, Really? for a more detailed explanation. So prior to the right-to-farm law, the court actually had a choice as to what it wanted to do and was not required by law, or statute, to deny Del Webb’s injunction request.
Next, let’s look at the questions which actually needed to be answered in the lawsuit in order for the court to come to its ruling:
1. May a lawful business that becomes a nuisance due to a subsequent residential development be required to move or cease operation?
2. If the nuisance may be moved or ceased, may the developer (Del Webb) be required to pay the nuisance (Spur) the cost of its move or cease of operation?
The court answered YES to both of these issues. In its reasoning, the court said that Spur was a public nuisance which means it is dangerous to public health and occurs in “any condition or place in populous areas which constitutes a breeding place for flies, rodents, mosquitos and other insects which are capable of carrying disease-causing organisms to any person or persons.” However, it was not due to any wrongdoing or unlawful acts by Spur, but was “because of a proper and legitimate regard of the courts for the rights and interests of the public.” The court went further to state that since Del Webb knowingly “came to the nuisance” (building and planning the community within a knowing distance from Spur’s operation), to the “foreseeable detriment of Spur,” Del Webb was required to pay Spur all their costs of moving or shutting down.
As you can see, this was likely a very costly and headache-ridden case. Spur Industries v. Del Webb was finally decided in 1972, almost 10 years after the lawsuit was filed. It was because of cases similar to this, where residential or urban communities moved into a rural, agricultural area where all the dust, noise, and smell are a common occurrence that right-to-farm laws came about. Public policy did not support pushing out and forcing producers to move their operations after existing for many years because new neighbors decided they did not actually enjoy living next door. Not only does it appear unfair, it is also potentially costly to continue in the way the Spur v. Del Webb court was going. No producer wants the nightmare of moving animals and the entire operation, nor do they want the neighbors forced to pay the thousands of dollars in relocation costs.