ATLANTA — A controversial update to Georgia’s Right to Farm Act cleared the state Senate Thursday after a debate of nearly two hours.
The bill, which originated in the Georgia House of Representatives last year, passed the Senate 29-21. Because of changes senators made to the measure, it must return to the House before gaining final passage.
The legislation would make it more difficult for property owners living in areas zoned for agricultural use to file nuisance lawsuits against nearby farms generating offensive noise, dust, smells or sludge runoff.
In order to sue, owners would have to live within five miles of the alleged nuisance.
Also, under an amendment approved on the Senate floor Thursday, lawsuits would have to be brought within two years after a nuisance occurs. More restrictive language in the original bill would have set the clock for lawsuits at within two years of an applicant obtaining a permit to start or change a farm operation.
Supporters argued the original Right to Farm Act the General Assembly enacted during the 1980s contains ambiguities that expose farmers to costly lawsuits that could be avoided by a clearer statute.
“Georgia has a booming agricultural economy that makes a $75 billion (annual economic) impact on our state,” said Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee. “But people are not going to be able to continue to farm and invest millions of dollars in equipment if they don’t understand what they can and can’t do.”
The bill was endorsed by the state’s major agricultural organizations in Georgia, including the Georgia Farm Bureau, Georgia Agribusiness Council and Georgia Poultry Federation.
But opponents, led by environmental groups, said the measure was designed to provide a legal shield to large farms owned by out-of-state or foreign corporations at the expense of small family farms.
“We’re putting our great agricultural economy at risk. Why? For Big Ag,” said Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth. “We’re selling out the small farmers.”
During Thursday’s debate, senators also disputed what types of nuisances the bill was designed to combat. Supporters said property owners already are protected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia Environmental Protection Division from farm operations that cause air or water pollution.
The bill “is about odor, dust, noise,” said Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry. “It’s not about clean water or violating environmental law.”
But opponents said government environmental agencies typically offer little protection from violations of air or water-quality rules.
“The EPA or EPD can take years to resolve issues,” said Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson.
Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, brought the statute-of-limitations amendment as a way to offer property owners living near farms more protection than the original bill would have provided.
Stone said that without the amendment, a farm applicant could get a permit but not actually begin operating for two years. In such a case, a nuisance could not occur until two years after the operation began, leaving property owners with no right to sue, he said.
But Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, said farm operations are too capital-intensive for farmers to sit on permits for two years before beginning their operation.