The media is full of stories about “urban farming,” which usually refers to the conversion of blighted or vacant inner-city property to tree farms and crop farming. In Township of Williamston v Hudson, and family took that concept to extremes.
In August 2012, the Hudson family moved into a home in Williamstown Township which was located adjacent to Williamstown High School’s property line. From the time they moved into their home, the Hudsons kept farm animals on their property. Through May 2013, these animals included rabbits, pigs, chickens, goats, quail and ducks. There were two problems with this. First, the Hudsons’ property was in a district zoned Single Family Residential—not agricultural. Second, soon after the Hudsons moved in, Williamston Township received complaints about the farm animals. The Hudsons, however, claimed that they kept the farm animals because their children were participating in 4-H.
Then, the Hudsons got creative. They claimed that they were immune from a lawsuit based on “nuisance” law by Michigan’s Right to Farm Act (“RTFA”).
According to the decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals in this case:
“The RTFA was enacted to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits.” Scholma, 303 Mich App at 22 (citation omitted). To this end, the statute exempts farms or farm operations from the enforcement of nuisance laws provided, among other things, the farm or farm operation adheres to the applicable GAAMPs. MCL 286.473(1); Scholma, 303 Mich App at 23-24. As the RTFA provides in relevant part: A farm or farm operation shall not be found to be a public or private nuisance if the farm or farm operation alleged to be a nuisance conforms to generally accepted agricultural and management practices according to policy determined by the Michigan commission of agriculture. [MCL 286.473(1)5 .]
The RTFA also expressly preempts local laws, including zoning ordinances, that conflict with the RTFA or applicable GAAMPs: [T]his act preempt[s] any local ordinances, regulation, or resolution that purports to extend or revise in any manner the provisions of this act or generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed under this act. [MCL 286.474(6).]
The protections of the RTFA constitute an affirmative defense; accordingly, the party asserting RTFA protection bears the burden of proving the following: (1) that the challenged condition or activity constitutes a “farm” or “farm operation” and (2) that the farm or farm operation conforms to the applicable GAAMPs. Lima Twp v Bateson, 302 Mich App 483, 494; 838 NW2d 898 (2013).
The Township found that the farm was not a “commercial” operation like most bona fide farms are. Further, the zoning laws predated the Hudsons’ purchase of their home and did not permit farming operations in a single family residential district. As a result, the Township was entitled to a court order preventing the Hudsons from continuing to keep the farm animals on their property.
Sometimes there is wiggly line between what is a “domestic” animal and family pet and a “farm animal.” Many children have bunny rabbits as pets—even iguanas. The Hudsons, however, went far beyond that with the menagerie of rabbits, pigs, chickens, goats, quail and ducks. There were problems with the smell and run-off of manure and the other problems associated with farm animals.
The United States Supreme Court, years ago, held that a city or township may permissibly divide an area into different “uses” such as residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural. This helps to organize infra-structures and to protect property values that might plunge if an automotive factory could be built next to a million dollar home. On the other hand, Michigan tries to protect farms from “nuisance suits.” It is a balancing act in some cases, but the bottom line of the Hudson case is that farm operations cannot be located in a single family residential area—and if a farm is located there, the “farmer” is not entitled to protection under the Right to Farm Act.