Farms' right to smell draws complaints Neighbors opposed to Glendening's plan to strengthen law

March 25, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Cows stink.

Every Marylander should know that basic fact about farming, according to Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He wants the General Assembly to protect farmers from city dwellers and suburbanites who move to the country, only to complain about the odors, noise and dust generated by their agricultural neighbors.

The governor has proposed strengthening the state's "Right to Farm" law as part of his Smart Growth initiative to curb suburban sprawl. The administration's legislation, which has passed the Senate and is pending in the House, would protect farmers such as Wayne Armacost of Upperco.

Armacost says his family has been farming in northwestern Baltimore County for seven generations. For much of the past 17 years, Armacost's Hickory Hill Farm has been the target of complaints from neighboring homeowners, mainly about foul odors.

To Armacost, the gripes and repeated visits by local and state inspectors border on harassment. "There are going to be times when there are going to be nuisances related to farming," said Armacost, "whether it's dust [from] plowing of fields or [odors from] hogs or cows or chickens. That's the nature of farming."

But Armacost's neighbors contend they have rights, too. They say they need protection from the nasty side effects of "factory" farming, as traditional agriculture gives way to agribusinesses that don't look -- or smell -- anything like they used to.

"Farm odors don't bother me," said Brenda Taylor, whose family has lived next to the Armacosts' Hickory Hill Farm on Black Rock Road for nearly 20 years. "This is not farm odors. There are times in summer when you can't open the windows. It turns your stomach."

Taylor said she and other neighbors had no trouble with the farm until the Armacosts began collecting waste from their nearly 400 dairy cows in ponds or lagoons near Black Rock Road. The stench is more septic system than stable, she said.

And odors are just part of the problem. The farm is under a consent agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment for failing to manage its animal wastes properly. Lagoons brimming with water and cattle manure overflowed twice last year, fouling a nearby stream, and crested again this month.

The administration's legislation would shield "agricultural operations" from lawsuits or misdemeanor nuisance complaints about odors, noise or dust. Though not specifically regulated, odors are governed by common law protecting citizens from actions by others. The right-to-farm bill would exempt cultivating, raising, harvesting or production of any farm product, as well as marketing and sales.

"We must provide our farmers with additional protections against nuisance suits," the governor said when he announced his growth plan this year.

State agriculture officials and farming organizations contend that farmers are beleaguered by complaints from neighbors who have moved into homes that sprouted where corn used to grow.

Jack Miller, lobbyist for the Maryland Farm Bureau, recalled dTC recently how a Cecil County deputy sheriff accosted him one night as he worked in his fields and told him to stop because neighbors were complaining about the noise of his farm machinery. The neighbors lived in a subdivision built on what had been a farm. Miller said he refused, but he believes other farmers might be intimidated by such complaints.

"If he's been there for generations, it's hard to conceive that somebody could put him out of business just because they don't like the smell or sounds of his business," Gerald D. Truitt Jr.,

spokesman for the Delmarva poultry industry, said during a House hearing on "Right to Farm" recently. Truitt, co-chairman of Maryland's agriculture commission, said the bill is one of the poultry industry's top priorities.

But environmental activists contend that not all farms deserve such broad legal protection. Large livestock herds, in particular, pose greater threats of polluting streams and ground water, they say, and "nuisances" such as odors, noise and dust often accompany serious environmental problems.

"If you're a big operation, you shouldn't be covered by this law," said Thomas Grasso, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The Annapolis-based environmental group proposed exempting any farm with a large livestock herd that is required to get a state pollution permit.

'That's not fair'

Brenda Taylor says "people should have rights, too," when farming operations change in a way that affects their neighbors.

"If it's a new operation," Taylor said, "he can't just say all of a sudden you've got to live with the odors and with the problems. That's not fair."

The current "Right to Farm" law protects farmers from nuisance complaints or lawsuits over odors, noise or dust. The law does not cover farms found to be causing a nuisance within one year of starting up or changing operations. The bill would remove the one-year waiting period, requiring only that farms be in compliance with environmental and other regulations.

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