Obenshain’s bill to curtail lawsuits against farmers clears Senate

Mark Obenshain

“It’s just part of life and living in the country,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, Thursday, referring to the smells and sounds that emanate from poultry houses.

The Virginia State Senate unanimously approved a bill proposed by Obenshain to increase legal protections for farmers Wednesday. The bill limits the circumstances when agricultural operations can be considered a nuisance and are subject to lawsuits.

“The Shenandoah Valley is undergoing a lot of change. A lot of growth, a lot of economic development,” Obenshain said. “With that comes a lot of folks moving into the valley and moving into rural settings … (which) brings a lot of interesting smells come springtime that people weren’t expecting.

“The fact that there are smells, noises, doesn’t give somebody the ability to sue, claiming that it is an actionable nuisance.”

Obenshain said that he’s noticed lawsuits of this nature pop up in Virginia, though they have been “small and isolated.” The bulk of agricultural nuisance litigation is concentrated in other states, Obenshain said, but he expressed concern Thursday that loopholes in Virginia law could open the door for more lawsuits.

“In North Carolina, and other states, there have been large, class-action lawsuits that have been filed, and they have gotten increasing prominence across the country,” Obenshain said. “We don’t want that to start here in Virginia.”

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, introduced an identical bill to the Virginia House of Delegates Jan. 10. It unanimously passed the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday.

A news release from Gilbert’s office stated the bill would protect farmers “from expensive and unreasonable nuisance litigation.”

“Currently, Virginia’s ‘Right to Farm Act’ contains several loopholes that can be exploited to penalize responsible farming operations for merely technical violations,” the release stated. “Unscrupulous attorneys in other states have already taken advantage of such loopholes to unfairly target farmers, with devastating financial results.”

This is not the first time the Virginia legislature has moved to protect farmers from litigation. A bill in 2014, HB 268 (SB 51), restricted local regulation of certain agricultural operations if there was no substantial impact to the public welfare.

The Virginia Right to Farm Act also sets up guidelines to limit when agricultural operations can be deemed a nuisance. The twin bills making their way through the Assembly seek to tighten these guidelines.

Gilbert’s office was not available for comment Thursday.