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Talbot County Circuit Court Holds Right-to-Farm Law Did Apply to Agriculture Operation


Tractor pulling disc and tilling farmland in Red River Basin by USDA
Tractor pulling disc and tilling farmland in Red River Basin by USDA

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Often, I rarely get to focus on a right-farm law decision in Maryland. Because the state’s right-to-farm law directs disputes into mediation, we often do not get decisions involving the law. Recently, a Talbot County Circuit Court judge reviewed the decision of the county agricultural resolution board involving a dispute from neighbors complaining about issues related to the new owner of farmland. The circuit court found that the farmland owners in question did not meet the existence for more than the one-year requirement in both the county code and the state law. The court reversed the county board's decision and remanded it to the county board. The decision is in In re Lewis.


Background


The farmland was purchased in March of 2020, and it's unclear from the court’s opinion what the land was being used before the current owners purchased it. The neighbors began to complain in September 2021 about the odors and other concerns from the soil conditioners being utilized by the owners. The Talbot County Agricultural Resolution Board held two hearings on the complaints in late February 2022 and mid-November 2022. The Board found that the soil conditioners had been applied and stored on the farmland since the fall of 2021. The Board found the storage and application of the solid conditioners to be a generally accepted agricultural practice and that the farmland had been used continuously for more than one year.


Circuit Court Decision


The circuit court is reviewing the county’s resolution board’s decision on whether substantial evidence is on the record to support the decision. On review, the court was mainly focused on determining if the board correctly applied the one-year provision in the county code and state law. State law and the county code require an operation to exist for at least one year to gain the right-to-farm defense. The circuit court interprets this requirement to apply to the land the operation uses based on the statute's and county code’s language. The state code is based on the terms “zoning” and “nuisance” for this interpretation. The county code utilizes words, such as smoke, noise, vibrations, odors, etc, that appear to effects the land.


Although the operation had been involved in agriculture for more than one year and used soil conditioners before purchasing the farmland in question, the use on the purchased farmland had taken place for less than a year before the neighbors complained. The circuit court reversed the decision of the county board.


Why Care?


The circuit court takes a narrow view of the right-to-farm protections and ties it to the land itself and not the operation. Under the circuit court’s decision, any time an agricultural operation expands in the state, the operation would need to operate on that new ground for over one year before gaining the right-to-farm protections for the property expanding to. Even if the operation has been in existence for more than one year. This view, to me, reads into the law much more than the General Assembly or Talbot County Council drafted into the respective laws.


Curiously, this decision might have been different if the complaint had gone through the agricultural mediation program in the Maryland Department of Agriculture instead of going to the county agricultural resolution board. Since that process would have been a proper mediation, that might have limited the ability of the court to review the record, but that still needs to be resolved in the state.


This decision can still be appealed. It will be interesting to see how the appellate court handles reviewing this court decision.


Reference

In re Lewis, No. C-20-CV-22-000143 (Talbot Cty. Cir. Ct. June 16, 2023)

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