Land application of biosolids was “normal agricultural operation,” triggering right-to-farm protections

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Gilbert v. Synagro Central
Pennsylvania Supreme Court, December 21, 2015

Appellees are thirty-four individuals who own or reside on properties next to a 220-acre farm in York County, Pennsylvania. The farm contracts with two companies who recycle biosolids to be used as fertilizer.

Between March 2006 and April 2009 approximately 11,635 wet tons of biosolids were applied to the farm. Appellees claimed that when the biosolids were applied there were strong, unpleasant odors that impacted their daily lives and made some residents ill.

Appellees complained to local officials, the biosolid companies and state officials with no response. In 2008 they filed two three-count complaints, which were consolidated. One of the complaints was that the appellants’ biosolids activities created a private nuisance.

Appellants argued that § 954(a) of the Right to Farm Act (RTFA) barred the nuisance claim. The relevant part reads:

No nuisance action shall be brought against an agricultural operation which has lawfully been in operation for one year or more prior to the date of bringing such action, where the conditions or circumstances complained of as constituting the basis for the nuisance action have existed substantially unchanged since the established date of operation and are normal agricultural operations.

The trial court determined that land application of biosolids is a “normal agricultural operation” under the RTFA. They found that land application of biosolids was not a substantial change in the farm business, and that farms have used different types of fertilizer for centuries. Also, appellees failed to identify what duty appellants owed them, which is an essential part to their claim.

On appeal the Superior Court reversed and remanded the nuisance claim. The court identified three requirements of the RTFA that must be met for a nuisance action to be barred: (1) the agricultural operation has an established date of operation at least one year prior to the filing of the action; (2) the conditions or circumstances constituting the basis of the action have been substantially unchanged since the established date of operation; and (3) the conditions are a “normal agricultural operation.” The court found that the first two requirements were met, but the third was not because there was no factual finding that application of biosolids was a “normal agricultural operation.” Regarding the second requirement, the court determined that a substantial change can reset the clock on the one-year allotment to file a claim. However, application began in 2006 and the complaint was not filed until 2008.

On appeal, the Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court’s decision on the first two requirements. It then further addressed the question of whether the trial court correctly concluded that land application of biosolids as fertilizer is a “normal agricultural operation.” In addressing this question the court made extensive inquiry into the history of the land application of biosolids as fertilizer, related statutes and regulations, case law and executive agencies’ views.  At the conclusion of this inquiry the Court found support to determine that the application of biosolids falls under “normal agricultural operations.” Because the RTFA is meant to protect farmers from nuisance claims, the definition of normal agricultural operations must reflect accepted changes in agricultural practices, including the increased use of biosolids.  The result was that  the farm was protected from the nuisance claim.

 

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