Legislation intended to protect farmers from lawsuits filed by homeowners in residential developments passed its penultimate committee on Tuesday.
The bill (HB 1601), filed by Rep. Jayer Williamson, would modernize Florida’s Right to Farm Act by granting farmers broad legal protections to limit lawsuits from encroaching developments. The House Environment, Agriculture and Flooding Subcommittee voted 14-4, with two Democrats joining Republicans, to approve the measure.
The Senate passed its version of the bill (SB 88) earlier this month after Senate President Wilton Simpson, a lifelong egg farmer, marked it as a priority. Sanford Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur is carrying that legislation.
Florida’ Right to Farm Act is meant to protect farmers from people who move into rural communities and then file complaints against farmers. And the bill’s proponents say it’s meant to protect farmers from people who move near their farms who might file nuisance suits against them for operations they’ve been conducting for years.
But critics argue the changes could protect farmers from suits regarding car accidents and smoke from agricultural burns.
When asked hypotheticals about potential lawsuits related to the health effects of legal farming practices, Williamson, a Pace Republican, said a farm would have violated best management practices to cause someone harm.
“This doesn’t absolve farming operations from complying with existing state and federal laws, regulations and best management practices,” Williamson said. “Those violations would be against a regulation and those practices would not be protected under this bill.”
The bill would restrict what types of civil lawsuits people could file regarding farming activities, limit who may file nuisance lawsuits against farmers and require plaintiffs to prove a farm broke state or federal requirements. It also adds “agritourism” — such as attractions like corn mazes, rural bed-and-breakfasts and wine tours — as protected farming activities.
The Senate version includes a more expansive definition of nuisance, with “reasonable use and enjoyment of land.” It incorporates noise, smoke, odors, dust, fumes, particle emissions or vibration.
Senators also addressed concerns over whether the bill’s original language roped activities from outside the farm into their protections. Parkland Democratic Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, who ultimately voted in favor of the bill, requested Williamson add language similar to the Senate’s fix.
Hunschofsky and Rep. Anika Omphroy, of Lauderdale Lakes, were the two Democrats to join Republicans on the vote. But Hunschofsky requested Williamson add language like the Senate did to clarify that protected farming activities only include those on the farm.
West Palm Beach Democratic Rep. Omari Hardy filed six amendments to remove or change some of the bill’s unfavorable provisions in his battle against the bill. One amendment would have adopted the Senate’s fix.
“We don’t want to adopt a bill that creates a law school exam question for judges as to whether the activity that is the subject of litigation is covered under this bill or not,” Hardy said.
Brevard County Republican Rep. Randy Fine said farmers battle the weather and shouldn’t have to battle encroaching residential developments.
“There’s an element to me of a NIMBY exercise here. I want the product, I just don’t want it grown near where I live,” Fine said.
The bill next heads to the House Judiciary Committee, its final committee stop before the House Floor.