STANTON — The exodus from cities to suburbs is a part of American culture.
Soldiers returning from World War II and Korea moved with their families to quiet little streets in new developments made possible by the country’s burgeoning infrastructure, particularly the highway system. In recent decades, even those suburbs have come to seem too crowded to many, and new developments have sprouted like mushrooms in previously rural areas.
Too often, that’s the point at which the trouble starts. Or rather, it starts the first time a farmer fires up his John Deere 7R series tractor and begins spreading manure over 80 acres of land bordering that shiny new housing development.
All those neighbors who have laid out serious capital for their brand new homes are not thrilled with the smell, the noise and all the other activities that are part of a working farm.
Enter the lawyers.
This conflict has become common within Montcalm County and most surrounding counties. Farmers, zoning administrators and residents living near working farms are all affected.
On Thursday evening, about 50 residents who fall into one of these categories gathered at the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District building in Stanton to hear about the legal vagaries surrounding the issue.
Kurt Schindler, senior educator on land use with the Michigan State University Extension Office, addressed the crowd, providing a wealth of information on both the Right to Farm Act and Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices (GAAMPs), which in large part regulate farming practices statewide.
The Right to Farm Act was created in 1981 to help address problems caused by residential expansion into rural areas. At its simplest, the act states that if you move next door to a farm, you can’t expect the farmer to suddenly change the way he’s been doing business for a generation or more.
In a nuisance lawsuit, the farmer may use the Right to Farm Act as a defense, provided he or she is running the agricultural operation in accordance with the GAAMPs. In its simplest form, GAAMPs are broad and cover virtually every aspect of farming, regardless of the size of the farm.
The problem is both the act and GAAMPs are moving targets; as the laws develop and are challenged by local communities, changes sometimes occur. This can make things confusing for local zoning administrators, Schindler said.
“GAAMPs is rooted in common law, which goes back to England,” he said. “It’s based on previous court cases over many decades. One of the primary ones is that you don’t use your land in such a way that it would harm someone else, based on the character of the neighborhood.”
In real life, things can get far more complicated. Schindler spent more than two hours Thursday going over many of the finer points of the Right to Farm Act and GAAMPs, which are legion. Also, there are many “unsettled laws” relating to the issue, Schindler said.
In many instances, GAAMPs rules supersede local zoning ordinances, in others they do not. Many aspects are currently in litigation and therefore not set in stone.
“It’s really unsettled law,” Schindler said. “It really becomes confusing law. If the topic of regulation is covered in the GAAMPs, it preempts local zoning regulation.”
Some in attendance Thursday are owners of small or large agricultural operations who had questions regarding their own particular situation. Under the Right to Farm Act, zoning commissions cannot pick and choose between different types of agricultural operations, according to Schindler.
Others were concerned about agricultural operations near their residences. One audience member asked, “If you brought in goats into a residential district, would we just have to fall back to the private nuisance (lawsuit)?”
Schindler noted that the Right to Farm Act would in all likelihood make such a lawsuit very difficult to win.
Local extension agent Don Smucker, who introduced Schindler, said the Right to Farm Act and GAAMPs both are designed not to create controversy, but to help parties on both sides of the issue reach some sort of amicable resolution.
“(The Right to Farm Act) deals with questions that arise from farming practices that impact local areas,” Smucker said. “It was designed so that farming practices can be carried out in a way that will not negatively impact the neighbors. At the same time, the neighbors will have to put up with some things. The main reason for the meeting tonight (was) to try to clean up some of these kinds of problems so they don’t arise.”
Schindler provided audience members with worksheets to help determine — especially for zoning administrators — which regulations may be imposed locally without coming up against the Right to Farm Act to GAAMPs. He admitted the rules are often labyrinthine and confusing.
“It’s not you,” Schindler said. “It’s really confusing and difficult. It’s hard to get your head around this completely.
“If you don’t know what to do, call up the Michigan Department of Agriculture,” he added.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development can be reached at 1-800-292-3939.