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Bill would beef up right to farm
State senator cites legal decisions against farmers
Capital Press Staff Writer
Strengthening right-to-farm legislation in Washington is the goal of a bill introduced last week by Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside.
SB5076 would help protect a farmer's right to change what he or she decides to farm without the threat of a lawsuit, Honeyford said.
"This proposal recognizes that if our farms are going to survive, they need the flexibility to adapt, and sometimes that means changing practices," he said. "Without that flexibility, farmers are often forced to sell their land."
Honeyford and his wife, Jerri, farm north of Sunnyside in Eastern Washington.
When interviewed shortly after the bill had been referred to the Senate Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Committee, Honeyford said two previous legal cases in Washington state helped set the stage for the proposed legislation.
In one case, a state Superior Court judge ruled that right-to-farm laws cannot be used by beekeepers in Yakima County to defend against a lawsuit filed by neighbors.
The neighbors sued the beekeepers in April 2004, saying that the bees forced them to stay indoors, stung them when they ventured outside and died by the hundreds or thousands in their above-ground pool.
The beekeepers argued that they were protected by right-to-farm laws since the area was historically used for farming and that beekeeping had been a part of the area for many years.
In another case, the Washington State Court of Appeals Court ruled that owners of a 50-year-old apple orchard were not shielded by right-to-farm laws when they switched to cherries after a neighbor built a house in a nearby subdivision.
The neighbor sued the orchard owner over the use of propane cannons to scare birds away from the cherry crop.
The court concluded that "it is the farming practice or activity that controls, not the fact that a farm predates development."
According to Honeyford's recently introduced right-to-farm bill, the bill reinforces the clear legislative directive of the state's Growth Management Act "to maintain and enhance the agricultural industry and conserve productive agricultural lands."
The legislation would apply in cases when agricultural and forestry operations are consistent with good agricultural and forestry practices - and established prior to surrounding nonagricultural and nonforestry activities.
Under those conditions, the practices or activities would be presumed to be reasonable and would not be considered a nuisance unless the operation, or related activity or practice, substantially harms public health and safety.
The agricultural and forestry operations and related activities and practices would also need to conform with all applicable laws and rules.
An agricultural activity that conforms with applicable laws and rules would not be restricted by hours of the day, or day, or days of the week during which it is being conducted.
In defining "agricultural activity," the bill includes selling produce at roadside stands or farm markets.
Agritourism advocates say that one of the roadblocks to inviting the public to farms, either to buy farm goods at a stand or to participate in on-farm activities, is contending with neighbors' complaints to local government.
"If you can't change from one crop to another to be profitable, you're doomed," said Honeyford. "Most farmers are forced to change. They have to keep modernizing."
Honeyford said that when he moved out onto the farm and built a new house, he knew there would be odors and noise associated with farming.
"But that's part of rural life," he said. "If you elect to move out into farm country, you have the responsibility to accept these things."
Honeyford said he believes the bill has a "fairly good chance" of passing.
"I don't know why people would object to it," he said. "But I know some people will."
For him, the bill would offer more certainty to farmers because they would know they could change crops without being hauled into court.
"Why would you want to farm if you can't adjust to the times?" he said.
In its recently released public policy agenda, the Washington State Farm Bureau said it will seek land-use policies that will protect all types of farming from nuisance complaints, regardless of what type of farming existed at the time of neighboring development.
Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org