TALLAHASSEE — A Senate-backed proposal to expand the state’s “Right to Farm” law continued to move Tuesday through the House over objections that it could block lawsuits about the potential health impacts of burning sugar cane.
The House Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee voted 14-4 to support the proposal (HB 1601), which is a priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and targets what are known as nuisance lawsuits against farmers.
The proposal would prohibit nuisance lawsuits filed by people who do not own property within one-half mile of the alleged violations. It also would limit damages that could be awarded to the market value of any property damaged.
The bill also would expand the longstanding Right to Farm law to include issues related to agritourism and “particle emissions.” In addition, it would require people who file lawsuits to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that farms did not comply with state and federal environmental laws.
Backers of the measure said farmers face increased pressures from residential and commercial development as Florida attracts more people.
“When we allow agriculture to exist in Florida, for the food that we eat, we actually do a lot of the things that people say they care about,” Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said. “If my sugar comes from Florida or my oranges come from Florida, or my grapefruit or my tomatoes or my celery comes from Florida, that means it’s not coming from somewhere far away, doesn’t have to go on a boat, doesn’t have to be powered to get here. It’s actually a more environmentally friendly way to do that.”
Rep. David Smith, R-Winter Springs, said he anticipates similar legal protections might be needed for other businesses.
“I think it’s one of those issues that we’re going to continue to see year after year, as more people move to Florida,” Smith said. “You come here and you move next to a farm and you want to complain and you want to sue somebody with a frivolous lawsuit, or you come into a tourism area and you complain that the Ferris wheel turns at night, and you don’t like that, or you’re next to a marina and you don’t like that the boats blow their horn when they go out to sea. It’s one thing after another as more people come to Florida, but more importantly, it’s about the frivolous lawsuits.”
The full Senate has already approved a similar measure (SB 88).
Critics contend the phrase “particle emissions” in the bills is part of an effort to scuttle a federal lawsuit over the health impact of “black snow” created from the burning of sugar cane fields.
In voting against the bill, Rep. Dan Daley, D-Coral Springs, said the proposed distance restriction on property owners who could file lawsuits could “close the courthouse doors to too many.”
The House panel rejected amendments proposed by Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, that included trying to expand from one-half mile to 25 miles the distance in which people must live from the alleged violations before filing lawsuits.
Hardy said the distance change would have helped people impacted by sugar cane burning.
“There’s a reason, for example, why they’re not allowed to burn sugar cane when the wind is blowing toward the east. It is because people in coastal Palm Beach County said, ‘We’re not OK with this’ and got the state to change the rules,” Hardy said. “And so, if it’s good enough for the folks on the coast in Palm Beach County, who are much more affluent than the folks out in the Glades, than it should be good enough for folks in Glades as well.”
Hardy also contended that support for the bill from some leaders in the Glades is reminiscent of support from coal miners for their industry.
“They felt that, you know, it was more important for them to keep their jobs than to have these questions about the health and danger of that particular industry visited and explored,” Hardy said.
William Cotterall, representing the Florida Justice Association, cautioned that the bill could be interpreted to include farming operations that go beyond onsite agricultural operations.
“If you have a livestock hauler, you have an operation that began on the farm operation, it goes out onto (Interstate) 95, it causes an accident, and somebody is killed, there’s property damage. The way the bill is drafted, unless that driver of the livestock actually violated an environmental law or regulation, they will be immune. We don’t think that’s what the intent of the bill is,” Cotterall, whose group represents plaintiffs’ attorneys, said.
But Adam Basford, director of legislative affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau, said that with more than 300 agricultural commodities in the state, pressures increase as the population grows.
Basford pointed to an organic vegetable farmer in Palm Beach County who has faced threats of lawsuits because his equipment was seen as an “eyesore” and the organic fertilizer being used was questioned for having a “toxic odor.”
“These farmers deserve the certainty that this bill will provide as they face other challenges, like pricing, like the competitive nature from other countries. This bill creates that certainty for our farmers,” Basford said.
The bill needs approval from the Judiciary Committee before it could go to the full House.