Genesee County farmers who won their case in circuit court against Fenton Township have been awarded all attorney fees by the 7th Judicial Circuit Court.
Marty Vyskocil and April O’Connell have been in court for more than a year after neighbors complained that the farmers were spreading horse manure and baling hay on their property, which is surrounded by houses. The farm was operating as an equine facility long before the housing development grew around it, and was zoned agriculture. But in the early 2000s, the township changed the zoning to Planned Unit Development-Equine, under which manure spreading, the township contended, was not allowed.
Originally, the township’s zoning administrator told the township’s Zoning Board of Appeals that it was his “feeling” that “the spreading of manure was a more intense use than the storing of manure...”
But after some investigation, including a determination from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) that the farmers were in compliance with Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPs) and thus protected from nuisance lawsuits under Michigan’s Right-to-Farm Act, the zoning administrator changed his opinion and told the township that Vyskocil and O’Connell were within their rights. The township decided to impose its own ordinance anyway. Vyskocil and O’Connell sued, and won.
See the entire story at https://www.michfb.com/MI/Farm-News/Township-zoning-Whats-the-real-poop/, or read it in the Feb. 15 print edition of Michigan Farm News.
“We are thrilled that the judge awarded attorney fees in this case,” said Matt Kapp, Right-to-Farm expert with Michigan Farm Bureau. “It’s a big victory for the Right-to-Farm Act.”
The victory – and $9,103 in attorney fees awarded by the judge – should encourage farmers who wish to fight similar township-level attempts to ignore Right-to-Farm, Kapp said.
“Sometimes farmers can be cautious about taking their township to court,” he said. “There aren’t many of them who want to risk a long, expensive court battle. And while the Right-to-Farm Act doesn’t guarantee that attorney fees will be paid if the farmer wins, this gives at least some assurance that they may not necessarily lose thousands of dollars, even if they win.”
The law, Kapp said, uses the word “may,” not “shall” in its section about attorney fees, but that’s not the point of the law.
“The reason the Right-to-Farm law was enacted was to mitigate conflict between farmers and their non-farming neighbors,” he said. “It’s what led to the site selection GAAMP, which helps farmers find appropriate locations so they can stay out of court. That’s what everyone wants, including townships.”
The decision in Fenton Township, Kapp said, also could make individual litigants think twice about going to court, and could help townships investigate state law before imposing their own.
“We believe this award could possibly dissuade townships from pursuing illegal ordinances that are contrary to Right-to-Farm,” he said. “Let’s hope so.”
The township has until June 7 to appeal the ruling.