State Court Decision Highlights When Right-to-Farm Laws Might Not Apply

Updated: Sep 16


Image of poultry farm by Edwin Remsberg
Image of poultry farm by Edwin Remsberg

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A Texas state court of appeals recently announced a decision on appeal. The court upheld a trial court’s granting a permanent injunction to neighbors to prevent two poultry farms from operating near their houses (Huynh v. Blanchard, 2021). This case involves a nuisance claim and highlights when right-to-farm laws may not provide a defense to an agricultural operation, demonstrating how Maryland’s law might operate differently in a similar situation. This case could still be appealed, so this may not be the final word in this ongoing situation.


Background


Steven Huynh purchased around 231 acres in Henderson County, Texas, in 2015 to use for a poultry operation for Sanderson Farms. After acquiring the property, Huynh set up two LLCs for two different farms which would operate poultry operations on the farmland sites. In this case, Steve put one farm in the name of his son Timmy and the other in the name of a relative named Thinh. Three hundred feet separated the two farms. Sixteen barns were split between the two properties, with each farm growing 444,800 birds. The two new poultry farms were fully operating by November 2016.


Texas poultry farm by Bob Nichols
Texas poultry farm by Bob Nichols

Shortly after that time, neighbors began to notice an odor coming from the barns and filed several complaints with TCEQ. TCEQ investigated the complaints and issued notices of violation (NOV) to the farms’ owners. When the farms’ issues remained unresolved after TCEQ involvement, the neighbors filed a lawsuit against the poultry farm owners and Sanderson Farms, the poultry integrator Huynh was growing for. The neighbors brought several claims, including nuisance and trespass, against the poultry farm owners and Sanderson Farms. At trial, the jury found in favor of the neighbors, finding that the poultry farms and Sanderson Farms had created a nuisance and had reduced the market value of the neighbors’ properties. The judge awarded no monetary damages but issued a permanent injunction against the poultry farms and Sanderson Farms, all of which appealed that decision.


Court of Appeals Decision


On appeal, the poultry farms owners and Sanderson Farms argued that the evidence was insufficient to support a nuisance finding. To refresh everyone’s memory, a nuisance is a condition that substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of a neighbor’s land. In Texas, nuisances are divided into three classifications:

  1. Negligent invasion of another’s interest,

  2. Intentional invasion of another’s interest, or

  3. Other conduct invading another’s interest in the land because the invasion is abnormal and out of place in the surroundings.

Expert testimony is not required to establish a nuisance but can rely on a layperson’s general knowledge.


Poultry production began in the first eight buildings of the new poultry farms in June 2016, and all 16 buildings were in use by November that year. According to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) guidelines, the two farms would have twice the number of birds likely to cause a nuisance and create odor issues. The first neighbor called Sanderson Farms to complain about the odors in early October. Later that month, TCEQ sent out an investigator to document the smells were a nuisance, and the investigator determined the poultry houses, not Sanderson Farms, were the source of the odors. As a result, the investigator issued an NOV to the poultry farms. TCEQ issued additional NOVs in February 2017 and June 2017, documenting 62 odor complaints by June 2017. Additional NOVs were issued later in 2017 and in 2019. Oddly, the court never highlights how the guideline related to the number of birds on a farm in relationship to these odor complaints by the neighbors.


Additionally, the neighbors began to keep logs documenting odor events on their properties and outdoor activities which the odors prevented. The odors often were intermittent rather than persistent because of variations in weather conditions. Finally, it is essential to note that all the neighbors owned their respective properties before the poultry farms moved in next door and could document what normal outside uses had been before the farms were established. Thus, the record confirmed that the existence of odors caused by the poultry farms constituted a nuisance.


Next, the farm owners and Sanderson Farms contended that the trial court abused its discretion by entering a permanent injunction and argued the neighbors could have recovered monetary damages without an injunction. Generally, an injunction is only available as a remedy when other remedies are inadequate. Typically when a nuisance recurs such as in this case, monetary damages will be insufficient since it requires bringing future lawsuits each time the nuisance occurs. In the case of recurring nuisances, the only adequate remedy is a permanent injunction. Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion when granting the permanent injunction against the farm owners and Sanderson Farms. The injunction also was expressly limited to the farm owners and Sanderson Farms to prevent them from operating a poultry farm within five miles of the neighbors.


Why Care?

Texas poultry farm by Bob Nichols
Texas poultry farm by Bob Nichols

This case highlights when right-to-farm laws might not apply. As I have written before, right-to-farm laws vary from state to state, and how they operate will depend on the statute’s wording. In this case, the Texas law applies “if the conditions or circumstances complained of as constituting the basis for the nuisance action have existed substantially unchanged since the established date of operation.” (Tex. Agric. Code Ann. § 251.004). Since the neighbors had been in the area first, and the poultry farms moved in next, creating the change in condition or circumstances, the right-to-farm defense would not apply.


Maryland’s law does not have a similar who was here first provision, so the right-to-farm defense would potentially still apply. Keep in mind that zoning in Maryland counties and zoning and planning requirements would potentially prevent some of the conflicts which arose in this case. Other differences in Maryland’s permitting process which a poultry farm would go through with the Maryland Department of the Environment could also lead to a different potential outcome in Maryland.


Finally, it is essential to note that the poultry farm owners and Sanderson Farms, in this case, can still appeal to the Supreme Court of Texas; this decision is potentially not the last word in this case. We will have to wait and see what happens with that potential appeal.


References


Huynh v. Blanchard, No. 12-20-00198-CV, 2021 WL 3265549 (Tex. Ct. App. July 30, 2021).


Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-403 (West 2021).


Tex. Agric. Code Ann. § 251.004 (West 2021).

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