Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Right to Farm Act

Last month, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued an interesting decision concerning the Tennessee Right to Farm Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 43-26-101 et seq. Essentially, a number of subdivision lots were aggregated by the “farm,” and used as a pumpkin patch, corn maze, and for concerts on the property.

Some 18 years after the “farm” began operations, the plaintiff bought one of the lots in the subdivision, not far away from the farm operations. The plaintiff’s lawsuit contended that the farm operations, if such they can be called, began to expand after she moved in, including additional concert performances, helicopter rides, and ATV use, disturbing her use of her property. She furthermore contends that about 75% of income of the farm is derived from these non-farming activities.

The farm discontinued the helicopter rides, but attempted to get a zoning interpretation that would support the concerts. Ultimately the County board of zoning appeals ruled that the farm could have only one concert per year.

The trial court ruled that under Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-114, there were sufficient agricultural activities on the land to merit exemption from the County zoning regulations. In particular, the trial court concluded that the definition of agriculture located at Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 1-3-105 and 43-1-113 include recreational and educational activities on land used in the commercial production of farm products and nursery stock. The Court of Appeals agreed. I assume that this means that the farm could have more than one concert on a yearly basis but that is a little unclear from the opinion.

Applying the protections of the Tennessee Right to Farm Act, the Court of Appeals first noted that the General Assembly likely never conceived that the protections of the statute might be called upon under circumstances such as these. But the court made the point that the General Assembly has defined farming to include agri-tourism, Tenn. Code Ann. § 43-39-101, and that could be interpreted fairly broadly given the statutory references. One of the experts in the trial court testified about a  state publication which defined agri-tourism as
a style of activity in which hospitality is offered on farms. This may include the opportunity to assist with farming tasks during visits. Participants can pick fruits and vegetables, visit mazes cut in crop fields or “Halloween” mazes, ride horses, taste honey, learn about crops, participate in hayrides (which may include picnics, campfires, bonfires, and entertainment, music, dancing), shop in gift shops and farm stands for local and regional produce or hand-crafted gifts, purchase food and beverages, purchase photographs, and much more.
The Court felt that this was consistent with the Act, and based on the Right to Farm Act, the plaintiff failed to rebut the presumption under the act that the farming operations were not a nuisance and as a result, the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court, dismissing the complaint.

This is probably one of the first interpretations of the Tennessee Right to Farm Act, and it is a broad interpretation not only of the act itself, but also of the zoning provisions which have always exempted agricultural activities from zoning regulation.

This is perhaps appropriate, particularly in a state like Tennessee, where farming activities have a long and hallowed history. In addition, the state remains relatively rural and agricultural; perhaps the true holding of this case is that farms are nothing other than a different type of commercial activity, and before buying property anywhere close to farming activities, the purchasers should be extremely comfortable with living in that kind of environment.

I tell many of my own clients that I grew up on a nursery. In fact, my father and brother both now run the family nursery, and far from being an idyllic place of quiet and rest, it is to the contrary, a place of boisterous commercial activity. Tractors and trailers are moving in and out constantly, there are approximately 75 to 100 workers who show up on a daily basis to plant, care for, and dig up shrubs to ship to various locations across the eastern seaboard. In addition, mulch, fertilizer, peet moss, and all manner of other materials and accessories are trucked into the nursery in support of the agricultural activities.

This is certainly not a bad thing: my family has depended for decades upon the income from this agricultural endeavor. But as cityfolk move out to the country, frequently they don’t quite understand the nature of farming activities, and the inconveniences they can create as a result.

Shore v Maple Lane Farms, Tenn Court of Appeals, April 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment