Farmers get protection for work from county

April 17, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

Farmers who go out in their fields to run combines before dawn got a break from the Harford County Council last week when the panel voted 7-0 for a right-to-farm bill that supports farmers against nuisance suits by neighbors.

The bill, introduced by the Rehrmann administration, grew out of concerns that encroaching residential development was threatening farmers' rights to conduct their business when and how they see fit.

The legislation includes specific language stating a farmer's right, within agricultural-zoned districts, to operate agricultural machinery at any hour of the day and to use farming procedures that are accepted industrywide.

"A lot of times, people in developed areas don't understand agriculture, and they don't try to before they file suit," said Donald Hoopes, a Forest Hill fruit and vegetable farmer who is a member of the Maryland Agricultural Commission.

He said nuisance suits in Harford have been rarer than in some other metropolitan counties, but complaints are increasing as residential developments spread farther into the rural landscape.

"In order for farmers to do business within the confines of the weather and crop ripeness, we have to do it when we can, and sometimes that doesn't fit in with the neighbors' schedules," Mr. Hoopes said.

"What they have to understand is that if a farmer has corn to harvest, and he knows it's going to rain in 24 hours, he'll work through the night to get it done," he said.

Lee McDaniel, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau, said that about half the counties in Maryland have some form of right-to-farm regulations. Howard County enacted a right-to-farm law four years ago, and the General Assembly this month passed enabling legislation that allows Carroll County to enact a similar ordinance.

Mike Paone, a Harford County agricultural planner who helped draft Harford's legislation, said that neighbors complaining to his office have criticized farmers for everything from "cows making noise after 10 p.m." to diesel-powered combines operating at 2 a.m.

He said people have complained about lights from tractors at night, about insecticide sprayed on orchards reaching their yards and about the odor of manure on nearby farmland.

"People move out here to be near a farm, thinking about the peaceful setting; they don't realize farming is noisy, it has odors, it's an industry," Mr. Paone said.

This bill may not prevent nuisance lawsuits, he said, but it will give the farmer a "strong, positive statement in the zoning code" to use as part of his defense.

Mr. Paone said the new law "in no way supersedes" environmental or health regulations.

"This is a small but important piece of legislation," County Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson said at the vote Tuesday night. "And I hope it will send a message to farmers and to those in high school and college . . . that Harford County welcomes farmers."

Said Mr. McDaniel, "It's more an attitude farmers are worried about than lawsuits."

He believes that ignorance about farming among Harford residents new to rural life is often at the base of their fears and complaints.

He said, for instance, that chemicals used in farming today are much safer than 20 years ago, but federal environmental regulations require posting notices and using safety measures that sometimes draw more attention to them than in the past.

Almost every state has some form of right-to-farm law on the books, Mr. McDaniel said. "Apparently it was the thing to do in the '80s."

Maryland's law, enacted in 1981, says any agricultural operation that has been under way a year or more does not constitute a nuisance. The state law, which is more general than Harford's, has never been tested, Mr. McDaniel said.

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