Right-to-Farm Law Does Not Protect Landowner From Nuisance Caused by Septage Lagoons

Updated: Apr 5



Cabbage field in Alaska with people out working in the fields and mountains in the background.  Image by Sarah Hurst via flickr.com
Cabbage field in Alaska with people out working in the fields and mountains in the background by Sarah Hurst

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Today, I want to highlight a recent right-to-farm law decision out of Alaska. The Supreme Court of Alaska, in Riddle v. Lanser, held that the state’s right-to-farm law did not protect a landowner storing septage on agricultural property. Many readers might be thinking this is a bad time for right-to-farm laws, especially after a recent jury verdict involving a North Carolina hog farm, but this Alaskan case highlights the fact that right-to-farm laws do not protect those not really involved in agriculture before becoming a “nuisance.”


Background


Robert Riddle bought 500-plus acres of farmland near Fairbanks, Alaska in 2005. After the purchase, he began to clear the property, put fences up, established roads, and began to use the farmland for livestock and to grow potatoes, oats, hay, and wheat. At the same time, Riddle owned a company that pumped private septic tanks in Alaska. On the farmland, Riddle put in five septage lagoons to store septage from this other business.


To apply the septage onto the farmland, Riddle had to receive the proper federal, state, and local approvals. In applying for these approvals, he agreed to use certain practices to limit odors being released and impacting neighbors. Riddle also was granted a conditional use permit by his local borough allowing him to apply biosolids, but the permit required that the primary use of the farmland had to be agricultural so the biosolids could only support the agricultural use. Around 2010, Riddle began to accept additional septage on the farmland from another company. In 2011, he sought approval to construct additional septage storage on the farmland but did not disclose that he already had storage on the property. In getting approval for the additional storage, Riddle agreed the use of septage had to support the primary agricultural use.

Farm in Alaska showing a cabless Ford tractor.  Image by Sarah Hurst
Farm in Alaska with a cab-less tractor by Sarah Hurst

In 2007, Eric Lanser subdivided a property neighboring Riddle’s farmland. He had expressed concerns at the hearing granting Riddle the conditional use permit. Around 2010, Lanser began to ask Riddle to control odors coming from the septage lagoons. Lanser and other neighbors began to report Riddle’s farmland for odors to state agricultural offici