Does California law protect farmers and ranchers?
With the increased number of houses and commercial developments being approved and built, one has to wonder where are all the farm going? Menifee Valley was originally (like most of California) a farming community. Cityhood has not been kind to the farms both large and small. To be honest, in general Cityhood is never kind to farming folk. Substantial property taxes are gained through development not through large parcels being farmed.
California has the seventh largest economy in the world, and agriculture is its single
largest component. It also endures one of the fastest growing populations in America,
with huge swaths of farmland regularly converted into housing. Menifee Valley for example, is the one of the fastest growing cities in the Inland Empire. To protect established
agricultural enterprises from claims by newcomers who become unhappy with the
smells, sounds, and runoffs of farming, the legislature enacted the California right to
farm law in 1981, which is set forth in California Civil Code Section 3482.5 which generally states that: No agricultural activity, operation, or facility, or appurtenances thereof,
conducted or maintained for commercial purposes, and in a manner consistent with
proper and accepted customs and standards, as established and followed by similar
agricultural operations in the same locality, shall be or become a nuisance, private or
public, due to any changed condition in or about the locality, after it has been in
operation for more than three years if it was not a nuisance at the time it began.
This section shall prevail over any contrary provision of any ordinance or regulation
of any city, county, city and county, or other political subdivision of the state.
The California courts have not only upheld the right to farm law, they have broadly
interpreted and expanded the statute’s immunities to protect agriculture. Recent
examples of this include Souza v. Lauppe, 59 Cal.App.4th 685 (1997), and Rancho Viejo LLC
v. Tres Amigos LLC, 100 Cal.App.4th 550 (2002). Both cases upheld immunity for farmers
and affirmed summary judgment in their favor.
In Souza, a farmer who had irrigated rice for nearly 20 years was sued by an adjoining
neighbor who claimed that seepage from the rice farm made his property too wet to plant
row crops. The neighbor pled causes of action for negligence, unlawful business
practices, and unfair competition in violation of California Business and Professions
Code sections 17200, et seq., and argued Civil Code Section 3482.5 was inapplicable
because it only provided immunity against causes of action for nuisance. The Court of
Appeal rejected this argument, explaining a plaintiff cannot avoid the immunity provided
by the statute by simply recharacterizing or relabeling the conduct in the guise of non-nuisance causes of actions to bring it outside the ambit of the statute. Souza, supra, 59 Cal.App.4th 865.
In Rancho Viejo, a farmer had raised avocado trees on 96 acres on the side of a
mountain for 25 years. The trees required extensive weekly irrigation, which flowed
downhill to an adjoining 30-year-old orange grove. A residential developer bought
the orange grove, cut down its trees, and excavated building pads for a large housing
tract. During the excavation, the developer encountered an extensive amount of
irrigation runoff, which required the construction of hundreds of thousands of dollars
in drains. The developer sued the avocado farmer, alleging causes of action
for trespass, failure to contain irrigation waters, and nuisance. The court of appeal
held that the right to farm law provided immunity even though the escaping irrigation
waters also constituted a trespass.
Both the Souza and Rancho Viejo courts went to great lengths to expressly hold that
the right to farm law should be broadly interpreted. Souza extended immunities to
farmers from claims by other farmers. Rancho Viejo extended immunity to farmers
who bought their property from other farmers. In each instance the court rejected any
argument that would frustrate the intent of the statute. This was based on public policy
as expressed by the legislative intent that prompted the right to farm law. The Court explained in Rancho Viejo case that “the Right to Farm Law” is an important step toward eliminating suits by individuals who have moved to a new housing development ‘in the country’ and
find the long-established farm bordering their back fence offends their senses.
Suits against agricultural operations for dust, wind machine or tractor noise, livestock
or poultry smells and other things commonly associated with the operation
of an agricultural enterprise are becoming more prevalent as urban development
reaches out to meet agricultural areas. The Right to Farm Law will stop
this dangerous cycle by allowing agriculture to operate without undue pressure
from urbanization. Keeping agricultural land in agricultural use is the goal.
The court went further to explain that the California right to
farm law provided immunity for virtually any activity incident to agriculture:
Section 3482.5 broadly defines an agricultural activity, operation, or facility, or
appurtenances thereof as used in subdivision (a)(1). Such matters “shall include,
but not be limited to, the cultivation and tillage of the soil, dairying, the production,
cultivation, growing, and harvesting of any agricultural commodity
including timber, viticulture, apiculture, or horticulture, the raising of livestock,
fur bearing animals, fish, or poultry, and any practices performed by a farmer or on a
farm as incident to or in conjunction with those farming operations, including preparation
for market, delivery to storage or to market, or delivery to carriers for
transportation to market.” By its plain language, section 3482.5 was intended to immunize farmers from nuisance liability for “any practices performed by a farmer or on a farm incident to … farming operations.”
With any growing and young city, there will be struggles between the “Country” and “City” folk and more importantly between the farmers and the land developers. In California, the nation’s most populous state, the right to farm law is alive and well. We may think that construction is the largest industry every time we are stuck in traffic but actually the largest and most valuable industry in California is farming and agriculture. As such. the courts in the Golden State are quite willing to invoke the statute to protect the ranchers and farmers. Forgetting the law for a moment, just remember without farmers and ranchers, prospects for dinner would be bleak.
Jeremiah Raxter, Esq
27851 Bradley Rd, Ste 145
Menifee, Ca 92586