Legislation supporters said would protect Georgia farmers from nuisance lawsuits cleared the Republican-controlled state Senate Friday.
Senators passed the Freedom to Farm Act 31-23 along party lines. Because the Senate made changes to the bill, which originated in the Georgia House of Representatives, it must return to the House to gain final passage.
The legislation would give neighbors bothered by bad smells, dust or noise emanating from a farm two years to file a nuisance suit. After that, any farm operating legally would be protected.
A law the General Assembly passed during the 1980s to protect existing farms from nuisances needs to be updated to protect farmers from increasing residential encroachment, Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, told his Senate colleagues Friday.
“The state has changed,” he said. “We’ve had so much growth hardly any farmers don’t have neighbors around them.”
Senate Democrats argued the farmers who most need protecting are those who suffer when a large corporate farming operation moves in next to them. In those cases, two years isn’t long enough, said Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Sasser.
“Nuisances can take many years to manifest themselves,” she said.
Sims said the 1980s law already protects existing farmers when new neighbors move in, whether they’re homeowners or other agricultural operations. On the other hand, existing farmers could only file suit under the new law if the nuisance occured within two years, she said.
But Walker said farming is such a capital-intensive undertaking that farmers must have protection from lawsuits to make their investments worthwhile.
“At some point, you’ve got to give them some certainty on their legal status to continue to operate,” he said. “Two years is a good balance.”
Besides the two-year statute of limitations, up from one year under the House version of the bill, the Senate also added a provision requiring any plaintiff filing a nuisance lawsuit to be the legal owner of the property affected by the nuisance. Another Senate change would allow local governments to bring suit for a “public nuisance” without being subject to a time limit.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.
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