Michigan Right-to-Farm Act does not protect horses kept for personal use

by Kaitlin Heinen

Peggy Sue Brown v. Summerfield Township
(Michigan Court of Appeals,  August 23, 2012)

Peggy Sure Brown claimed that the Right to Farm Act (MCL 286.471) “preempts a township ordinance that prohibits her from keeping her horses on property less than one and a half acres.” The trial court, disagreed, finding that Brown was not engaged in a commercial farming operation.  She appealed.

The Right to Farm Act “states that a farm or farm operation must not be found to be a public or private nuisance if it conforms to ‘generally accepted agricultural and management practices’ (GAAMPs), according to policy determined by the state commission on agriculture. Local government may not enact or enforce an ordinance that conflicts with the Right to Farm Act or the GAAMPs.” (MCL 286.474(6)) So “any township ordinance, including a zoning ordinance, is unenforceable to the extent that it would prohibit conduct protected by the [Right to Farm Act],” which includes ordinances requiring minimum lot sizes.

The Right to Farm Act “preempts ordinances only to the extent that they impose restrictions on commercial farming operations,” which means that the Act does not apply to property owners who are not engaged in commercial operations for profit. A farm operation is defined “as activity conducted ‘in connection with the commercial production, harvesting, and storage of farm products.'” Brown referenced the subsection (MCL 286.472(b)) that mentions “the care of farm animals.” However, this subsection is listed in connection with possible farm activities conducted in a commercial operation. It is not an exception to the commercial requirement.

Brown offered no evidence that she kept her horses for profit (breeding, boarding, horse rides for fee, etc.). The Michigan Court of Appeals did not have to address  whether the farm operation provision creates a cause of action or provides a defense because the Right to Farm Act does not apply to Brown. The court  also did not have to address whether the farm operation provision applies to a new farming operation in property zoned as residential. The trial court rightly found it unnecessary to address the issues.

The Michigan Court of Appeals also held that the trial court rightly granted summary disposition on Brown’s substantive due process claim because the ordinance was not unreasonable.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court on Brown’s equal protection claim as well, since she offered no evidence that she had been treated differently than any other person. The trial court’s decision was thus affirmed.

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