Colorado farmers and ranchers will find greater protection from nuisance suits under Senate Bill 29, sponsored by State Sen. Mark Hillman, R-Burlington, which received preliminary approval in the state Senate.
"Last year, when we were debating amendments to right-to-farm, I found out that our existing law had grown fairly confusing since it was first passed in 1981," Hillman said. "In fact, it seemed that nobody was really sure what it meant anymore. Every attorney I asked seemed to give me a different opinion of what it meant."
Right-to-farm laws are intended to protect farmers and ranchers whose property is no longer isolated, but is becoming increasingly surrounded by residential neighbors.
"Many of these neighbors like the idea of living in a clean, quiet, fresh-air country setting, but don't realize that rural living is not always roses and daffodils," Hillman said. "Those of us who farm and ranch take for granted that our neighbors sometimes will need to bale hay at 4 a.m. or that cattle yards will smell worse after a rain."
For many rural newcomers, these are unpleasant surprises. In fact, these conditions might be grounds for a nuisance suit or ordinance, if they existed in the city, but SB 29 states that ag operations ought to be protected in the country, since they were there first.
The existing law, first sponsored by Sen. Ray Powers, R-Colorado Springs, had been amended several times in past years making its meaning somewhat unclear. For example, one passage reads: "An agriculture operation is not, nor shall it become, a private or public nuisance by any changed conditions in or about the locality of such operation after it has been in operation for more than one year, if such operation was not a nuisance at the time the operation began."
Hillman's bill, which is sponsored in the House by Rep. Brad Young, R-Lamar, proposes changes to clarify the protections afforded to Colorado's farmers and ranchers.
First, the bill states that agriculture operations are protected from nuisance suits, so long as they "employ methods or practices commonly or reasonably associated with" agriculture. Those protections only are lost if the farm or ranch operates negligently.
Next, SB 29 clarifies that the nuisance suit shield is, in Hillman's words, "attached to the land," regardless of a change in ownership.
"Under old law, when a farm or ranch changes hands, the new owner may be vulnerable to a nuisance suit for the first year," Hillman explained. "That is just one more factor which discourages young farmers or ranchers and can force the land to be sold for development."
Finally and perhaps most importantly, SB 29 establishes a "rebuttable presumption" that an ag operation is not negligent.
"This bill makes it clear that the burden of proof rests with the person who plans to file a suit," Hillman said. "The farmer shouldn't have to prove his innocence."
In presenting the bill to the Senate Agriculture Committee, Hillman explained that his bill has no impact on the hog farm regulations passed by voters in amendment 14.
"Last year, right to farm was amended to make it clear that it doesn't conflict with amendment 14, and that language remains intact," he said. "If large hog farms comply with Amendment 14, they are protected by right-to-farm."
Next step SB 29 is final passage by the Senate.
Hillman represents Senate District 2, which includes Baca, Berd, Cheyenne, Crowley, El Paso, Kiowa, Kit Carson, Lincoln, Otero and Prowers counties. He is vice chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee and serves on the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee and the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.