Senate committee may scale back right to farm legislation

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(Host) The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says he has major concerns about legislation that’s designed to protect farmers from lawsuits brought by neighbors. The Senate committee is likely to scale back the legislation, which is a top priority of the Douglas administration.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) After hearing testimony for and against the so-called “right to farm” legislation, Bennington Democratic Senator Richard Sears says he’s worried that the bill goes too far. Sears chairs the Judiciary Committee:

(Sears) “From our point of view, it does make sense to update our right to farm legislation, or laws, that were passed in the early ’80s due to changes that were unforeseen back then when the Legislature first wrote it. But to do something that may result in an unconstitutional act would be very dangerous to both farmers and the general community.”

(Dillon) The House passed the bill at the urging of the Douglas administration and some farm groups. The bill was in response to a Supreme Court ruling that said an Orwell apple operation was not entitled to protection under the right to farm statute when neighbors sued over noise and traffic problems. The challenge for lawmakers is to protect farmers without unfairly restricting the rights of people to bring a lawsuit if a farm harms their health or property.

Montpelier lawyer Paul Gillies, an expert on the Vermont constitution, told the Judiciary Committee that the existing right to farm law is close to the edge of being unconstitutional. He says the House version raises serious constitutional questions since it would limit the right of neighbors to go to court under some circumstances. He says the Legislature may end up with some unintended consequences.

(Gillies) “By responding to what I think is kind of public pressure to do something in this situation, you do farmers more harm by precipitating a challenge which would declare the entire right to farm law unconstitutional.”

(Dillon) The Vermont Farm Bureau supports the House-passed version. Farm Bureau lobbyist Art Menut says the concern is over what happens when a farm operation changes over time.

(Menut) “Given the nature of agriculture, it’s essential that farms be allowed to grow and adopt new methods, new hours and diversify if necessary without opening themselves up to nuisance lawsuits.”

(Dillon) Senators Sears said after the hearing that the committee will probably vote on the bill on Thursday.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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