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‘Right-to-farm’ bill tramples rights of residents

Mary Clark has lived in her home in Hobbs since about 1983 and operated a restaurant on her property. A small 300-cow dairy operation moved in nearby in 1986. By 2008, the operation increased fourfold – milking roughly 1,200 cows – and that same year, it faced a proposed $10,000 fine from the New Mexico Environment Department for failure to install monitoring wells to detect groundwater contamination.

Maria Elena Bejarano has lived in her home in Anthony since about 1978. A small dairy had existed nearby since 1974, milking approximately 400 to 500 cows. But over time, the farm grew dramatically, and by 2008 it was milking approximately 2,500 and housing more than 3,000 cows.

Mary and Maria Elena are real longtime New Mexico residents who were finally empowered to protect themselves and their property when about six years ago they joined class action lawsuits against the enormous industrial factory farms that ruined their quality of life.

Their complaints were not trivial grievances of occasional dust or whiffs of manure. They reported unbearable impacts on their lives. They couldn’t sleep. They couldn’t sit on their porches or barbecue outside without extreme headaches and nausea due to the strong stench of animal waste. They couldn’t open their windows for fear of ingesting flies that swarmed and covered their homes. They hesitated to drink their water, fearing their well could be polluted with farm runoff.

A nuisance lawsuit was one of the few avenues neighbors had to seek relief, to have a court determine how they could be redressed for the horrors they were experiencing.

Rather than find ways to mitigate the impacts of their operations and coexist with their neighbors, the owners of these enormous animal factory farms hired lawyers to defend their noxious practices and incited Big Agriculture lobbyists to promote new laws that would make factory farms untouchable in the future.

So here we find ourselves today: Senate Bill 72 has passed both legislative chambers and awaits the governor’s signature, amending the current “right-to-farm” statute to make it even more difficult – if not impossible – for neighbors with legitimate complaints to have their day in court.

The problematic language in this right-to-farm bill requires that a previously established agriculture operation must substantially change in both “nature” and “scope” before a neighbor can bring a nuisance claim. Opponents fear the language protects only agricultural operations at the expense of long-term homeowners, and no one could explain why this interpretation was wrong.

Any conversation about how to find a balance – preventing plaintiffs from knowingly moving next to a farm in its current form and filing a claim (“moving to a nuisance”), while also protecting the rights of neighbors who see small, next-door farms turn into massive animal factories – was fervently rejected.

The focus of bill proponents remained solely on a deceptive narrative claiming out-of-state law firms were targeting our state’s dairies out of malice, ignoring the painful truths that rebut their rhetoric.

Anyone can see that Mary and Maria Elena did not seek out what they suffer. They find no pleasure in litigation. They simply moved to their homes decades ago and watched the landscape around them substantially, intolerably change.

SB 72 was fast-tracked through the Legislature, and efforts to amend the bill on the Senate and House floors – a one-word change attempting to more fairly balance the interests between farms and their neighbors – failed.

But one thing became clear during the floor debate: The bill was poorly drafted. Bill proponents wouldn’t directly respond to concerns that the bill unfairly blocks legitimate nuisance complaints, even providing contradictory testimony on the bill’s effect.

It became obvious the true intent was to protect factory farms from any accountability to their neighbors.

So, in a sloppy rush to provide yet another special exemption for a single industry in our state, the Big Agriculture lobbyists have once again thrown everyday New Mexicans into the manure pits.