The Michigan Court of Appeals Lends Clarity to Application of the Right to Farm Act
In the recent case of Sena Scholma Trust v. Ottawa County Road Commission, (October 24, 2013), the Michigan Court of Appeals held that the Right to Farm Act (the “RTFA”), MCL 286.471 et seq. was not implicated in the Ottawa County Road Commission’s denial of a field driveway permit to a farm operation under the driveways, banners, events and parades act (the “Driveway Act”), MCL 247.321 et seq.
The Sena Scholma Trust plaintiffs’ farmland at issue in the case consists of a 30-acre parcel of undeveloped property which floods during times of heavy rainfall. Because the center of the property has the lowest elevation, the western side of the property becomes all but inaccessible from the existing east driveway when the center of the property is flooded. In order to gain access to the western side of the property during spring, plaintiffs submitted a driveway permit application to the road commission. The road commission denied the permit, and the plaintiffs initiated the litigation.
An interesting aspect of Sena Scholma Trust involves plaintiffs’ argument under the RTFA. The RTFA preempts “any local ordinance, regulation, or resolution” that extends, revises, or conflicts with the act itself or generally accepted agricultural and management practices (“GAAMPs”). Thus, local ordinances, regulations, and resolutions may be enforced against farms and farm operations only if they do not prohibit what the RTFA or GAAMPs expressly permits, and do not permit what the RTFA or GAAMPs expressly prohibit. The plaintiffs argued that the denial of the driveway permit conflicted with certain GAAMPs that include timing requirements for application of manure and nutrients. The trial court agreed with plaintiffs, concluding that the RTFA precludes any municipal action “which impairs a farm or farm operation.” On this basis, the trial court held that the RFTA was violated by the road commission in this case due to its “[f]ailure to grant access to the field when it is necessary for farm operations[.]” The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed.
After reviewing the plain language of the RTFA, the Court of Appeals held that a municipal action that impairs a farm or farm operations is not preempted by the RFTA if the action does not constitute an ordinance, regulation, or resolution that purports to extend or revise or that conflicts with the RTFA or the GAAMPs. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals found that the RFTA was not implicated by the road commission’s denial of a driveway permit because it did not constitute an “ordinance, regulation, or resolution.” The Court of Appeals further found that it was the wet conditions of the property that potentially preclude plaintiffs from meeting the timing requirements for application of manure and nutrients found in the GAAMPs, not the denial of the driveway permit. Finally, the Court of Appeals noted that the RFTA is a shield not a sword, and does not require a local unit of government to affirmatively act “to allow or enable a farmer to more effectively comply with the GAAMPs.”
This important decision reinforces the Michigan Supreme Court decision in Papedalis v, City of Troy (2007) that farms and farm operations are not exempted from local regulations that are not addressed in the RTFA or the GAAMPs, and signals that farms and farm operations should not be permitted to rely on attenuated or indirect conflicts between local ordinances, regulations, or resolutions and the RFTA or the GAAMPs to obtain exemption.