RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers decided Thursday that hog and poultry operations should get added protection from lawsuits by neighbors complaining that swarms of flies and the intense stink of animal waste create a nuisance.
The Republican-dominated state House gave final approval to legislation restricting how much neighbors of high-density hog and poultry barns could collect if they prove a nuisance. Of the lawmakers representing Robeson County in the House, Reps. Ken Goodman and Charles Graham voted in favor of the legislation, and Rep. Garland Pierce voted against. Rep. Brenden Jones did not vote.
Robeson County’s Sen. Danny Britt Jr. voted in favor of the bill in the Senate.
The measure becomes law if it is signed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
The legislation was prompted by pending federal lawsuits involving about 500 rural neighbors against Murphy-Brown LLC, the North Carolina-based hog production division of Virginia’s Smithfield Foods. It is a U.S. subsidiary of the Chinese company that is the world’s largest pork producer.
Lawmakers changed the original language so that the new limits would not apply to the pending litigation.
The bill was co-sponsored Goodman, who represents Robeson, Scotland, Hoke, Richmond and Montgomery counties.
Goodman has said the bill is to protect small farmers of all kinds.
“This is an agricultural bill and it is not just focused on hogs,” Goodman said. “This is just dealing with nuisance lawsuits. It doesn’t restrict other kinds of lawsuits, including those involving environmental issues.”
But Pierce, the senior member of Robeson County’s five-member legislative delegation, objects to those filing nuisance lawsuits in the future only being able to obtain compensation equal to the market value of their property.
“I support our smaller local farmers, but this is not about them,” he told The Robesonian recently. “This is all just about one company who has come to the General Assembly to get them out of court. It’s about a big conglomerate who wants to have lawsuits against it thrown out. I don’t know of any small farmers who are being sued … . I don’t think the General Assembly should be the judge and jury in this case. It should not be choosing a winner or loser.”
The measure restricts compensatory damages in cases where a farm or forestry operation is proved to create a nuisance to the lost property value or rental value plaintiffs. Nuisance claims are the same type of legal action other property owners could bring to force changes if their neighbor’s garbage attracts rats or rusting cars multiply.
The legislation is designed to undercut the appeal of such lawsuits for lawyers who would pursue cases with little or no upfront payment by plaintiffs and the hope of a big payday if they win a case.
The Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance estimate that about 60,000 North Carolina homes are within a half-mile of livestock operations, the range within which families are mostly likely to pursue lawsuits to stop an alleged nuisance.
Supporters said the new protections are needed for the rural economy of eastern North Carolina, the country’s No. 3 hog state where pork was worth $2.3 billion in 2015, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
There are 50 active hog farms currently in Robeson County, said Taylor Chavis, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension agent. Most of these farms are independent contractors who supply Smithfield or Murphy-Brown. Robeson is one of the top livestock producing counties in North Carolina, generating $83.3 million in sales in 2012.
“Sometimes an operation that’s being sued was there first,” said Rep. Larry Pittman. “I feel like if a farm is there first, and you know this is going on, then don’t complain.”
Opponents called the legislation another example of the politically powerful pork lobby getting its way. Neighbors have complained for decades about the smells from intensive hog production that causes headaches and clings to clothes. Wind-driven spray has been known to coat a neighboring home’s exterior in liquefied excrement, some people have said.
Agricultural businesses were getting special legal treatment that doesn’t exist for other potentially noxious neighbors, Rep. John Blust argued.
“A neighboring property owner of say, a chemical factory, can recover all these compensatory damages that the common law has long recognized,” he said, “but if it’s an agricultural operation, a property owner with the same type harm cannot recover those damages.”