DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a long-standing precedent that allowed landowners to sue when a neighboring pig farm causes water pollution or odor problems that affect quality of life.
The court concluded, 4-3, that a 2004 decision was wrong.
The earlier ruling found that a portion of Iowa’s law granting livestock immunity from neighbor nuisance lawsuits violates the inalienable rights clause of the Iowa Constitution. It also found that neighbors could sue if they had lived in the area long before the farm started operating, suffered significant hardship, and failed to take advantage of the nuisance immunity granted to livestock.
Judge Thomas Waterman wrote in Thursday’s decision that “Protecting and promoting livestock is a legitimate state interest, and granting partial immunity from nuisance cases is a good way to do that.”
Iowa is the nation’s largest pork producer with 23 million pigs, most of which are kept in large confinement buildings that collect nitrogen-rich manure from the animals and use it to fertilize fields.
The court said judges must use a rational basis to assess future judicial challenges — a norm that will be difficult to overcome because it assumes state laws are passed in favor of the public.
The decision is a serious blow to property owners in rural areas who want to take legal action against the expansion of pig farms.
“It will make it more difficult. Either way, it was tough,” said Wallace Taylor, the attorney representing landowner Gordon Garrison, who bought 300 acres of land in northwest Iowa’s Emmet County in 1972, built a home there in 1999, and was disturbed in 2015 when New Fashion Pork began operating a 4,000 pig operation on land owned by BWT Holdings, about half a mile away.
Garrison said he could smell its scent for more than 100 days a year, sometimes all day, and that it caused him nausea and dizziness that forced him to stop working outside the home. Other neighbors supported his complaints.
He also complained about water pollution caused by manure spread on adjacent fields.
Garrison sued in 2020, calling the pig farm a nuisance. A district judge dismissed his lawsuit in May 2021 and he appealed.
Waterman wrote on Thursday that balancing the competing interests of pig farmers and neighbors “is a typical legislative function involving policy choices that places our constitution at the chosen branches.”
According to the ruling, property owners can sue if the damage resulted from a failure to comply with a federal or state law or regulation, or if the farmer failed to employ prudent and generally accepted management practices.
“The Iowa Supreme Court restored the role of the Iowa legislature in balancing the right to farm and the impact on those who choose to live in rural Iowa,” said James Pray, the attorney who the pig farm manager and the farm owners.
The Iowa Supreme Court has six conservative justices appointed by Republican governors and one democratically appointed. Last Friday, the court overturned the 2018 decision that guaranteed Iowans the fundamental right to abortion under the state constitution.
Judges Brent Appel and Christopher McDonald wrote in dissenting opinion that they would have accepted the 2004 case that raised pig farm challenges. Justice Dana Oxley agreed.
Appel said the purpose of the inalienable rights clause in the Bill of Rights is to ensure that individual freedoms are not eroded by an aggressive legislative or executive branch.
“Are we telling existing property owners to get ‘one for the team’ because the private owners next door are emitting nuisance odors under a legal immunity scheme?” He wrote.
McDonald said Iowa law immediately deprives a property owner of the right to file a private nuisance lawsuit and seek full damages, and that other states allow neighboring landowners time to sue.
“Ultimately, the legal question posed in this case is simple: does the constitution mean what it says? Do the men and women of this state have the constitutional right to protect their property? The text of the constitution, precedent and history say yes. The majority say no,” he wrote.
Taylor said Iowans should elect lawmakers who will rein in the livestock industry, listen to their concerns, and repeal the swine pig farm’s nuisance immunity bill.
These names of the owner of the pig farm and the land on which the pig houses are built have been corrected.