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Published March 09, 2011, 10:43 AM

Idaho bill would protect farms from nuisance suits

JEROME, Idaho — Dean Dimond has no difficulty imagining how a massive feedlot could affect his livelihood. He has only to gaze across the fence line on his farm in the heart of Idaho’s dairy country to envision the dust and odors an industrial farm big enough to handle 13,000 cows could generate.

By: Mitchell Schmidt, Associated Press

JEROME, Idaho — Dean Dimond has no difficulty imagining how a massive feedlot could affect his livelihood. He has only to gaze across the fence line on his farm in the heart of Idaho’s dairy country to envision the dust and odors an industrial farm big enough to handle 13,000 cows could generate.

Dimond, 38, who raises cattle, hay, grain and corn on 450 acres near Jerome, is one of a handful of residents fight a proposal to put a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO, next to his land.

While their case is pending in the Idaho Supreme Court, state lawmakers are considering legislation designed to make it more difficult for citizens to file lawsuits to stop the expansion of such feedlots or protest farming methods that create noise or stir up dust and offensive odors. Lawmakers in several other states are considering similar measures.

Dimond believes the Idaho bill, backed by the farm industry and some of the state’s most influential Republican leaders, threatens his ability to dissent and protect his quality of life.

“I’m afraid that (the bill) is going to make it so if a CAFO or some big major chain wants to come to the property right next to you; you’re not going to have a say in it,” Dimond said. “I’m not saying you should be able to stop everything, but if it’s going to affect you, you should have a say in it, whether it’s positive or negative.”

The bill would make it possible for farms and feedlots to expand and operate within their property lines without fear of reprisals from neighbors’ nuisance claims as long as they obey government regulations and have the appropriate state and federal permits.

Supporters say this will protect farmers from meritless lawsuits in a state where agriculture provides more than 130,000 jobs. Idaho’s dairy industry, the third largest in the nation, is behind the bill, and it has support from farmers who grow row crops in areas where residential subdivisions have exploded in the past decade, such as the counties around Boise and nearby Nampa.

“Agriculture is a shining star in Idaho,” attorney Dan Steenson told lawmakers during a recent committee hearing on the bill. “Expansion is necessary for businesses to grow.”

But opponents contend that while livestock and crops might be contained in farms’ boundaries, byproducts like dust, noise and the smell of manure don’t honor fence lines.

“There’s that old saying, good fences make good neighbors and this is kind of doing away with that fence,” Dimond said. “I think it could pit farmers against farmers.”

The bill would also limit to some extent county officials’ ability to regulate farming through planning and zoning laws. It would make county ordinances under which farms could be declared a nuisance invalid. The Idaho Association of Counties has taken a neutral stance on the bill, but officials said members’ opinions on the measure are split.

Jerome County Commissioner Charlie Howell said he can’t recall a nuisance claim in his six years on the board, but he said losing the ability to weigh in on those decisions was troubling.

“We are concerned that (the bill) would take out the local control,” he said.

In Missouri, lawmakers are also mulling legislation that would limit lawsuits against farms, cap certain kinds of damages and reduce the chances of multiple lawsuits being filed against the same farm.

Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, said the bill would prevent people from hammering farms with lawsuits year after year.

“The reality is that this just became a legalized slot machine for some people,” he said.

Supporters argue the measure would protect the rights of Missouri’s more than 100,000 farmers, but detractors see it as nothing more than an effort to put corporate farming interests ahead of smaller family farms.

“It’s being spun as a bill to protect family farmers, but it’s 100 percent at the expense of family farmers,” said Tim Gibbons, spokesman for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

Iowa lawmakers considered a bill earlier this year that would specifically bar homeowners from filing nuisance lawsuits against nearby farms. Supporters of the legislation say people who move to rural areas should accept the conditions they find there.

Rep. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden and chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee, delayed debate on the bill, opting instead to study the issue this summer.

Dimond said he thinks the laws might just create a false impression that everything is OK. Just because there won’t be nuisance complaints doesn’t mean there won’t be problems, he said.

“I think the legislature is trying to overstep their bounds in regulation,” he said. “You can’t pass a law to make somebody be a good neighbor, and that’s what they’re trying to do.”

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