(Host) The Senate Agriculture Committee has heard concerns that proposed changes to the right-to-farm law could make it unconstitutional. The legislation is a top priority for the Douglas Administration. But it’s facing tough questions in the Senate.
VPR’s John Dillon reports.
(Dillon) The law is supposed to protect farmers by raising legal hurdles to stop lawsuits brought by neighbors. The Douglas Administration and some farm groups say the law needs strengthening because the state Supreme Court ruled last year that the statute did not protect an Orwell apple orchard against a lawsuit.
Senator Sarah Kittell is a Franklin County Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. She says the challenge is to tighten up the law without unfairly restricting the rights of people to bring a lawsuit if a farm harms their health or property.
(Kittell) “Because what we heard from the law school professor was that we would essentially be throwing out common law for 400 years that they rely on, neighbors working together and you can enjoy your property that we would be tightening things up so much with this language that it might be called unconstitutional.”
(Dillon) Paul Gillies is a lawyer and expert on the Vermont constitution, who represented the neighbors in Supreme Court case that the Legislature is now trying to address. He says the legislation is skating on constitutional thin ice, because it appears to limit the rights of one group of people – those who live next to farms. According to Gillies, that could run afoul of the common benefits clause of the state constitution, which basically says the law has to treat everybody equally.
The legislation says a farm is protected against nuisance suits if the operation follows accepted agriculture practices set by the state. But Gillies poses this question: if neighbors of a leaking landfill can file suit over damage to their drinking water, how can the law limit a neighbor’s right to sue over farm pollution?
(Gillies) “It limits the right of access to the court for people who are living next to farms, if the action of the farm happens to fall in this accepted agriculture practice.”
(Dillon) Organic farmer Keith Lacroix of Fayston came to the Statehouse to voice his concern about the legislation. He’s worried that if his fields are contaminated by pollen that drifts from genetically modified crops, he could lose his organic market.
(Lacroix) “Then there’d be no way for me to recover from that. With these bills, wouldn’t give me the opportunity to try to seek reimbursement or a way to fight that.”
(Dillon) The Senate Agriculture Committee is trying to keep all these various interests in balance – the rights of neighbors and the rights of farms to expand and adopt new technologies. Chairwoman Kittell says the Senate Judiciary Committee may also want to review the legal impact of the bill.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.