Iowa court: Families get no immediate relief from hog stench
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Three southeast Iowa families who say the stench from two hog farms made it difficult for them to emerge from their homes won’t get immediate help from the Iowa Supreme Court, which Friday reversed a lower court decision that found a law protecting producers was unconstitutional.
The court ruled that Iowa’s right-to-farm law was constitutional in its aim, but it upheld a previous ruling that said the protection for producers can be overcome by showing “sustained significant hardship” and meeting other conditions.
The Wapello County case returns to a lower court to determine whether the families meet those requirements. The decision also clears the way for similar lawsuits against other animal feeding operations, some of which were placed on hold pending the state Supreme Court ruling, seeking to mitigate allegedly harmful effects or recover damages.
Jason Chance, one of the Wapello County plaintiffs, said the “horrible stench” has caused anxiety and depression and it leaves his family with burning throats and eyes. The combined total of hogs at the farms is nearly 10,000.
“It’s no way to live at all,” he said in a deposition. “Our family has had deteriorating relationships. I can’t have friends and family over. It’s embarrassing.”
Attorneys on both sides said the decision will help resolve similar cases by providing direction on what standards need to be met. But the sides also hoped the court would make a more forceful ruling, either striking down the right-to-farm law as always unconstitutional or upholding it in all cases, blocking claims that the harm to neighbors can supersede the protections for producers who follow the rules.
Bill Roemerman, an attorney for the hog farms, said the courts “chose a middle ground” that fails to draw a “bright line” but adds clarity to what’s expected in nuisance cases involving animal producers.
Justice Bruce Zager wrote in a majority opinion that all 50 states have similar right-to-farm laws and the law wasn’t clearly unconstitutional because it seeks to promote the development of animal agriculture. Iowa is the only state that’s found portions of its right-to-farm law to be unconstitutional.
Two of the seven justices argued in a concurring opinion that the court should have gone further by declaring that producers should be shielded from nuisance claims in all cases. They argued the court shouldn’t “second-guess policy choices of the elected branches of government.”
Jennifer De Kock, a lawyer representing the three Wapello County families, called the decision a “win for everybody who lives near or potentially near one of these facilities” because the court affirmed that neighbors of an animal production facility are entitled to significant protections.
“I don’t really feel like this decision is a game-changer,” she said. “It really is the court saying that you have to show your work and you have to prove to us with your facts that there is uncontroverted loss of use and enjoyment of your property.”
Eldon McAfee, an attorney who represented the Iowa Pork Producers Association and Iowa Farm Bureau Federation in a friend-of-the-court brief, said animal producers wanted the concurrent opinion to be reflected in the majority view.
“It’s a positive decision for producers, but not as positive as it could have been,” he said.