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Court of Appeals Holds Person Relying on Right to Farm Act as a Defense to a Nuisance Lawsuit Has the Burden of Proof

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Foster Swift Agricultural Law Update
November 26, 2013

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently issued a for-publication decision (meaning that the decision will be binding precedent for other courts) holding that a person relying on the Right to Farm Act (RTFA) as a defense in a nuisance action has the burden to prove the challenged conduct is protected under the RTFA.

In this September 19, 2013 decision, Lima Township v Bateson, the land owners were storing and using heavy equipment on their property. The township believed the land owners’ uses were not permitted under the township zoning ordinance and were a nuisance. The land owners argued they were developing a tree farm on their property and that the RTFA protected their actions. After a lengthy evidentiary hearing that included testimony from farmers and a Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development official, the trial court granted the township’s motion for summary disposition and ordered the land owners to stop parking and storing heavy equipment on the property. On appeal, the Court considered whether the trial court properly determined that the land owner’s activity was not protected by the RTFA.

The Court explained that in determining whether an activity is protected under the RTFA, a two-prong analysis is required. First, the activity must constitute either a “farm” or a “farm operation” as those terms are defined by the RTFA. Second, the “farm” or “farm operation” must conform to the applicable generally accepted agricultural and management practices (GAAMPs). The Court wrote that the RTFA did not say which party bears the burden of proof, and no earlier published cases addressed the issue. The Court then held that when a person asserts the RTFA as a defense in a nuisance action, the person asserting the defense bears the burden to prove by “a preponderance of the evidence” that the challenged conduct is protected under the RTFA. The Court explained that its decision means that a party asserting a RTFA defense must prove that the challenged condition or activity constitutes a “farm” or “farm operation” and that the farm or farm operation conforms to the relevant GAAMPs.

Applying this analysis, the Court determined that there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether the land owners proved that they intended to produce trees and sell them for profit, and whether the alleged nuisances (the storage and use of heavy equipment) were necessarily related to the production and sale of trees. The Court also determined that no findings had been made with respect to the GAAMPs. As a result, the Court reversed the decision of the trial court and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the appellate opinion.

To read the full opinion in Lima Township v Bateson, click here.

Do you have any questions about the Right to Farm Act? Contact our Ag Law team