02.03.2016
Article

PA Supreme Court Sides with Farmers in Synagro Case

Municipalities are frequently witness to the tensions between large-scale farmers and their residential neighbors who resent the effects of these farms on their way of life. Concentrated farming operations are strictly regulated by the Commonwealth; but even a large-scale farm that complies thoroughly with all of Pennsylvania’s requirements can generate odors, insects or runoff which create at least the perception of problems or violations in the eyes of neighbors.  Municipal officials are often pulled in both directions - to support one side’s position or take action to correct the other. 

Fortunately for municipalities, legislative and legal guidance is available to negotiate the correct path through such issues.  Laws such as the PA Right-to-Farm Act (RTFA), the Agricultural Security Act, the Nutrient Management Act, and other legislation has been enacted to control the development of large scale farming and its effect on neighbors. In 2005 our Commonwealth adopted the Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment (ACRE) law, with the intention of guiding municipalities toward correct regulation of agricultural operations. Since that time, a body of case-law has grown to help provide municipalities with a framework for correct local regulation of farming and agricultural production. 

Our Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently was called upon to address the interaction of these laws in a York County case, Gilbert et al v. Synagro Central LLC, decided on December 21, 2015. In that case the Court held that interpretation of the Right- to-Farm Act should be conducted by courts, rather than decided by juries. In doing so, the Court seemed to recognize that the complexity of farming regulation was most safely placed in the hands of a judiciary familiar with the various regulatory bodies, rather than a jury made up of laypeople who may not appreciate the way the various regulations work together. 

Is spreading of biosolids “normal agriculture”? Defendant Synagro held a PaDEP permit to spread biosolids, the residual product of municipal waste treatment, on farmground in southern York County. Neighboring residents, concerned about noxious smells and potential health hazards, sued to enjoin the spreading, claiming nuisance, negligence and trespass actions against the defendant. The defendant argued, successfully in the lower courts, that its actions were protected under the Right-to-Farm Act, which provides that once normal farm activities are in process for one year, the activity is immune from nuisance actions. The case continued long after Synagro discontinued its spreading, and eventually rose to the Supreme Court to address the issue of whether the spread of biosolids is a “normal agricultural operation” and therefore a protected action under the RTFA.

Statute of repose or of limitation? The legal issue addressed by the Court was whether the RTFA’s one-year provision creates a statute of repose (which is jurisdictional and decided by a judge) or a statute of limitation (which is factual and usually interpreted by a jury). The Court referenced input from many amicus curae commentators (including the Office of the Attorney General, Department of Agriculture, PA Farm Bureau, National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and others) and language from numerous farm-related acts (including all of the Acts cited above and more) to determine that the restriction was one of repose, and therefore to be determined by a judge, not a jury. This seems a tacit recognition that interpretation of today’s complex agricultural regulation requires recognition of input from the various bodies of the Commonwealth conducting the regulation – for example, DEP and the Department of Agriculture – which a judge will recognize and accept, as opposed to a jury which might be more likely to be guided by their hearts than their heads.

Having addressed the repose issue, the Court went on to conclude, again by referencing the language of the laws and regulations controlling modern agriculture, that spreading of biosolids was indeed the kind of activity prevalent in modern agriculture, and therefore dismissed the last of the claims against Synagro.

What do we learn from Synagro? Although nothing will ever entirely eliminate the tension between ag operations and their neighbors, municipal officials can help keep the peace by maintaining good records and good policies. A well-documented agricultural security area  aids in assuring which properties can benefit from the RTFA. The various Commonwealth entities which regulate agriculture can be resources for consultation, to the benefit of municipalities, and professionals like your solicitor and engineer can provide valuable input in designing ordinances that enhance agriculture without inhibiting the rights of neighbors. Finally, as always, the most important skill of a public official - and perhaps of every person - is the ability to see and respect both sides and address parties with the respect that engenders mutual benefit rather than conflict.

- Published in the 2016 Winter edition of our Municipal Newsletter.

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