Right to Farm Act Changed and the Affect on Local Farmers with Animals

GAAMP Rules are Not Regulatory – They are Voluntary

photo credits: arstechnica.com, idealhomegarden.com and sohoproject.com

photo credits: arstechnica.com, idealhomegarden.com and sohoproject.com

At first glance, the new changes in the state law regarding the Right to Farm act that were made at the end of April appear to make life more difficult for small farmers in Michigan. Under the change, the Michigan Agriculture Commissioners define how close livestock facilities can be to other homes around them. Anyone with farm animals (even one) in a neighborhood where there are more than 13 homes within 1/8 of a mile of the animals or with any home within 250 feet of the proposed facility would not be in compliance with the generally accepted practices that are the basis of state protection (GAAMPS). People who had 50 animals or less were previously exempted from GAAMP rules.

However, looking more closely at GAAMP and the rules that come down from the Dept. of Agriculture show that they cannot actually enforce the rules. The GAAMP rules are not regulatory, meaning they are not laws. All the state can do is determine if a facility is in conformance with the GAAMP rules which are only set forth for a farmer to voluntarily comply with. The benefit of a farmer complying with the GAAMPs is that if there is a future complaint and nuisance lawsuit, they would stand a better chance of winning that lawsuit because they are complying with state standards and can use that as a defense. It’s not a guarantee, but it shows there was due diligence to adhere to standards so as not to be a nuisance to their community and to show that they adhering to good care standards for their animals. According to state records, there were 153 investigations by the state due to complaints in 2013 and only one or two of them were in Grand Traverse County. The highest percentage of complaints in the state concerned dairy, beef and equine (horse) farms. The majority of the complaints were concerning air quality and water concerns.

“Farm animals” that are listed in the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s GAAMP rules include: cattle; swine (pigs); sheep; lambs; horses; turkeys; laying hens or broilers; turkeys; game birds; goats; domestic rabbits; farm-raised mink and fox; aquacuture species (fish, crustaceans, mollusks, reptiles, or amphibians); South American Camelids (alpacas); beekeeping and apiary management and privately owned cervidae (deer).

The future of the small farmer appears to be in the hands of the local municipalities, be it the townships, cities and counties to decide their rules regarding farm animals within their jurisdictional boundaries. Some might be more restrictive and some less.

When asked if state legislators in Lansing are in discussions about adding further regulations to add any additional protections for small farmers, State Representative Wayne Schmidt (R-104) and State Senate candidate, says that he doesn’t see any movement on the issue right now. He added that he has talked to House Agriculture Committee Chair Kevin Daley and has been getting input from the farming community in Northern Michigan. After the initial report was made about the changes and people have become more educated about the rules, the initial knee jerk reaction to the policy has died down. He says that his office isn’t receiving complaints from his constituents about the rule changes.

Do any of the Traverse City Commissioners intend to vote to change the current laws regarding the ability to raise chickens within city limits? None that have been contacted recently.

Ross Richardson responded, “Certainly not from me. I was on the Planning Commission when we granted approval for raising chickens within the city limits. There was little opposition then, and it seems to be something that’s working well. I’m not aware of any complaints, and there seem to be many city residents taking advantage of the opportunity.”

Gary Howe says, “I can’t speak for other City Commissioners or staff, but I personally do not have any intention of changing TC’s current ordinances on urban chickens.”

Mayor Michael Estes added, “I am one of seven votes on the City Commission but as mayor of Traverse City I have no intention of changing our ordinance regarding chickens. I also have no desire to amend our policies on honey bees, dogs, cats or the squirrels, deer and song birds that reside in the city limits.”

Kurt H. Schindler, Senior Educator of Land Use at the Michigan State University Extension, was also contacted by Pet Friends Magazine about these rule changes. He said, “I do not think one can assume all local governments will react in the same way. We have had many local units of government that have, in the past chosen not to allow any farming at all in cities, villages, and urban areas because of concerns and their inability to effectively deal with local issues. Now that the door has opened for local governments to have some control there may well be an interest in providing for such activity where there has not been previously.”

He continued, “In the past few work-days I have been contacted by several municipal attorneys and professional planners representing an even greater number of local governments who are looking for ways to do just that.  They are seeking assistance to know what safeguards should be in place for raising animals on small lot residential neighborhoods so they can accommodate the local food movement, 4-H, and urban farming. Obviously not all governments will choose to do that.  I do not have a complete picture of what every government in the state will do. But the following is a rundown of what choices are likely:

•  There will be some local governments which will still want to say “no” to any animal farm operations in dense primarily residential areas. But that should be far fewer municipalities, especially in face of the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act’s mandate to provide for all lawful land uses somewhere within the political jurisdiction.

The Michigan Zoning Enabling Act reads:
“A zoning ordinance or zoning decision shall not have the effect of totally prohibiting the establishment of a land use within a local unit of government in the presence of a demonstrated need for that land use within either that local unit of government or the surrounding area within the state, unless a location within the local unit of government does not exist where the use may be appropriately located or the use is unlawful.” (MCL 125.3207)

Further, Michigan courts have addressed the matter of ‘demonstrated need’ with the Michigan Court of Appeals writing:

“An ordinance that has the effect of totally prohibiting a particular land use within a township is impermissible in the absence of special circumstances. . . . A zoning ordinance that totally excludes an otherwise legitimate use carries with it a strong taint of unlawful discrimination and a denial of equal protection of the law with regard to the excluded use. . . . A zoning ordinance may not totally exclude a lawful land use where (1) there is a demonstrated need for the land use in the [municipality] or surrounding area, and (2) the use is appropriate for the location”  (English v. Augusta Township, 204 Mich. App. 33 (1994))

•  There will be some local governments which will be welcoming to discussion and consensus building to accommodate animal farm operations in all or some primarily residential areas.

• There are local governments that have not been receptive to animal farm operations in primarily residential locations but may feel far more comfortable after these changes and be more open to farm operations in primarily residential areas. This is because they now have ability to have some control to implement a local consensus without preemption by RTFA.

• There are some local governments that already allow limited animal farm operations in urban areas, but did so with the risk they may not have been able to really control issues of local importance. This change helps those communities be on surer legal footing. 

Click here for more information about local government attention to these rules.

Schindler says, “What will be important is for the community discussion and deliberation of how to handle all of this takes place.  Now is the time to bring this up within a community. We will see if it will work. I would not tell people to go run to the legislature. Rather explain to them this shifts the issues of local food, and local farming to the local government – and they should start the process of building relations and work out local system that best suits everyone.”  

Randy Bell, Extension Educator for Community Food Systems, adds “Relationship building can happen in many ways. People should know exactly who will be making these local decisions if prompted. Is it a city or village council, a township or county board or others? Who makes the zoning laws? For example, in Ingham County where I am from, there is no county-wide zoning. In effect each municipality is responsible. There may be counties that perform zoning functions county-wide but still permit a city or village to determine its own zoning.Educate and inform decision-makers. Teach them the proper terminology. It might be useful to invite them to see first hand some smaller or backyard operations (some risk here, as you might imagine).There may be a local food policy council (last count there are almost 20 in Michigan) who may wish to be involved in educating and advocating for local agriculture. Relationships can be built there.

He says, “Connecting with MSU Extension or the local Conservation District are good relationships to build.Lastly, don’t overlook 4-H or the local Fair Board. By the mere nature of their experience, they can help by educating decision-makers about smaller or backyard agricultural pursuits.”

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