Lawsuit spurs farmers to seek right to farm


Herdis and Richard Moser were operating their 130-head dairy farm just the way they had for the past 12 years.

But when a neighbor unfamiliar with agricultural practices moved into a home on their farm lane about two years ago, the couple was hit with two $250,000 nuisance suits over the dust that milk trucks and tractors kicked up on the gravel driveway.

A settlement hearing last fall, in which the Mosers agreed to place a load of gravel on the driveway every year, finally resolved the case.

"We were scared to death someone was going to make us pave that driveway," said Ms. Moser at yesterday's Carroll County Agricultural Commission meeting. "This was a normal practice, and they tried to say it was a nuisance and that we were negligent. We weren't hiding the fact that we were an agricultural operation when he moved in."

Seeking to protect farmers from similar nuisance suits, the Carroll County Agricultural Commission and the Carroll County Farm Bureau joined forces yesterday to draft a county right-to-farm ordinance.

The two organizations will appoint members to the committee within a week, said commission chairman Donald Essich. Committee members don't have a deadline for completing the draft, he said.

The state passed right-to-farm legislation in 1986, which simply states that farms in operation for at least one year have a right to continue, said Martha Clark, chairman of the Howard County Soil Conservation District, at yesterday's commission meeting.

"We passed one in 1989, and beefed it up for the county," she said.

Howard's legislation specifies agricultural land uses and states the Howard County Health Department will not investigate a potential problem unless it receives complaints in writing from two affected people.

The Health Department will not investigate a complaint against an agricultural operation when previous complaints of the same nature against the same farm have been ruled invalid.

The law also encourages the Health Department to work with the Howard County Cooperative Extension Agency in resolving complaints.

"This does not protect a farmer that has been negligent," said Ms. Clark, who also is president of the Howard County Farm Bureau. "We don't want that. But we think farmers should have a right, at least, to use the resources of the university [extension agency] to back them up."

Commission members also suggested a letter be drafted for real estate agents to give to prospective buyers when they sign a contract on property in an agricultural area.

"The problem is communication in a lot of cases," said commission member Jim Steele. "People buy property out here and they all want it to be like a sunny Saturday afternoon. They become disillusioned when they see what really goes on."

One of his neighbors became upset when Mr. Steele planned to put livestock where he had always planted hay. The Woodbine horse farmer later learned the woman was afraid of animals.

"We talked and we worked it out," Mr. Steele said. "But we're [farmers] not always going to get that opportunity to talk. A letter would say welcome, go introduce yourself to your neighbors, and might limit these nuisance suits."

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