Michigan Farm News

Urban rights intact after Ag Commission action

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by Paul W. Jackson

Chickens in Yard
Urban farmers have not been prohibited by the Ag Commission from doing anything other than following local rules and GAAMPS, which all farmers are expected to do if they want Right-to-Farm protection.

The American Dream is at least in part about ruling your own roost. When a neighbor – or worse yet, a government – tries to take that away, American Dream seekers become upset.

Ruling your roost, however, has never meant there are no limits to freedom. Because one person’s right to swing his fists ends where another person’s nose begins, there must be established boundaries.

That’s what the Right-to-Farm law has always been about.

It started with an effort to protect farmers from litigation-happy neighbors who moved in next to farms, had their noses offended and decided to swing their fists.

Times have changed, however, which is one reason Michigan Farm Bureau recently endorsed the actions of the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development when it approved a new set of guidelines for farm animal location, specifically in urban areas.

“When Right-to-Farm first came into existence in 1981,” said Matt Kapp, government relations specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau, “it was about protecting farmers from nuisance (lawsuits) that came to them when urban people moved next to their farms. But today, when urban agriculture moves into residential areas, the nuisances inherent to farming (smell, sound, and land use), has come to the urban dwellers. Farm Bureau believes both the urban farm and its neighbor need protection.”

The assumption among many farmers, Kapp said, is that they have a right to farm without restrictions. That’s true to the same extent that the fist-swinging analogy is true. Anyone can fulfill the dream of raising farm animals if raising them complies with law. To comply, therefore, one must know the law.

The Right-to-Farm law states clearly that to enjoy its protection from nuisance lawsuits, the farmer must comply with all applicable Generally Accepted Agriculture Management Practices (GAAMPs). That includes setbacks from neighbors, animal care guidelines and adherence to local zoning law. Following the GAAMPS has always been voluntary, and that involves choice: Either follow them and have nuisance lawsuit protection, or ignore them and forfeit that protection. The new siting GAAMP does not change that.

“This does not strip anyone of rights,” said Trever Meachum, the Ag Commission’s vice-chair. “This is not about big-versus-small or country-versus-city. It’s simply about following GAAMPs if you want Right-to-Farm protection. The right to farm is not a Constitutional right. If you comply with GAAMPs, you are exempt from having a township or city try to zone you out if you are in an otherwise restricted zone. But if you never followed GAAMPs, you can’t assume you had Right-to- Farm protection to begin with.”

Among the assumptions accepted about the rule – yet not set in stone due to a few legal questions – is that the siting GAAMP protects grandfathered farms. Urban livestock operations will be allowed to continue if they were already in compliance with local ordinances and continue to follow GAAMPs, which now say that any farm with fewer than 50 animal units must comply with siting GAAMPS or forego Right-to-Farm protection. If it does comply and gets taken to court, the state of Michigan will testify about the farm’s compliance with GAAMPs.

All farms affected

While misinformation about the GAAMP abounds, Kapp said it’s certain that the siting GAAMP applies to all farms, not just urban farms. No animal facility can be located within 250 feet of its neighbor, nor within an eighth of a mile from any area that contains 13 houses or more if it expects Right-to-Farm protection. Local ordinances still apply and could allow urban farming uses.

So why do some groups insist that their rights have been taken from them? Confusion, Kapp said.

“This makes the siting GAAMPs applicable to all farms, regardless of size,” he said. “It’s an all-inclusive rule.”

Meachum said “local control is about being a good neighbor, and these GAAMPs – if farmers follow them – help people remain good neighbors. Some places, common sense would say, shouldn’t have livestock. Different communities have different ideas about what they want, and this accommodates those communities. Zoning protects both you and your neighbor.”

The truth of the matter, Meachum said, is that the Ag Commission, after discussions and public input about the matter for nearly two years, was trying to clarify the GAAMPs rules. However, confusion persisted when a few urban farmers who testified before the Commission admitted they were not in compliance with local zoning ordinances and expressed the belief that they didn’t need to comply.

“Some people wanted to ignore their local ordinances and still get Right-to-Farm protection,” he said. “There has been a lot of misinformation out there from the start, and the commission was just trying to provide some clarification to all communities.”

Clarity, however, is difficult when misinformation flies over social media outlets and uses emotion as a motivator instead of facts.

“The fact is,” Kapp said, “that this does not forbid livestock, it just allows for local decision-making. The fact is, GAAMPs are not law, and farms of any size are not required to follow them. It’s just that if they don’t, they won’t get Right-to-Farm protection. The fact is, this applies only to animals. This does not stop anyone from growing their own food or even selling it on the sidewalk. And it does not prevent anyone from living the American Dream or ruling their own roost. It just gives them the opportunity to follow their dream without offending neighbors. We think that will remove some conflicts, and if this new GAAMP does that, then it creates good neighbors. That’s what Right-to-Farm is all about, and that’s good public policy.”