Pa. opts to negotiate, not litigate

SALEM, Ohio – Clashing farmers and local officials in Pennsylvania may soon be heading to the negotiating table instead of the courtroom.
A proposal announced Aug. 10 by Gov. Edward Rendell has once-disagreeing ag groups now nodding their heads in unison.
Illegal? Currently in Pennsylvania, local governments can pass ordinances restricting agriculture, whether it be farm size or corporate ownership. While some argue these rules supersede state law and are therefore illegal, others say the government needs a better grip on large farms.
The governor’s solution is compromise.
In his recently announced Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment initiative, known as ACRE, Rendell proposes an Agriculture Review Board to solve the problem. This five-member independent board would hear the arguments both of farmers and local officials or residents and negotiate a solution.
If the issue couldn’t be resolved, the board would make a determination, which could be appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
Pa. Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff said this ag board would also solve another concern: When farmers and officials go to court, who gets socked with the legal fees? Should farmers still pay court costs when an ordinance is declared illegal?
There’s no cost involved with the board, Wolff told Farm and Dairy.
“Agriculture likes this approach because it’s refreshing and new and solves the problem of costing [farmers] a lot of money,” he said.
The board would include the secretaries of agriculture, environmental protection, and community and economic development; the dean of Penn State’s School of Agricultural Sciences; and a member appointed by the governor.
Not so quick. There is, however, a hitch in the proposal. The 60 municipalities that have already passed ordinances affecting agriculture will not be eligible to go before the review board. These people would have to go the traditional route, through the court system, Wolff said.
Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Director of Governmental Affairs Gary Swan said this is a concern but he anticipates the General Assembly will address this issue when the bill is discussed this fall.
The legislator who will introduce the proposal this fall has not been determined, Wolf said.
“I would love to see [the bill] finalized before the holiday break,” he said.
Replacement. All of this replaces House Bill 1222, a source of controversy in state agricultural and environmental circles over the last year.
The bill planned to hold local governments financially responsible for making laws that don’t comply with the state. The General Assembly passed the bill late last year, however Rendell’s New Year’s Eve veto resulted in a lawsuit.
Senate Republicans say the veto did not reach the correct office in time, however Rendell’s administration maintains the veto stands.
Republican leaders filed the lawsuit in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in May. It is still pending.
Rendell said he vetoed the legislation because it was not “comprehensive.”
Thoughts. Although ag groups are supporting the governor’s latest proposal, House Bill 1222 wasn’t as well received.
Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) particularly opposed the measure, saying it was an attempt to strip local government’s authority of pollution and “factory farms.”
“The creation of this review board is preferable to the ‘take it or leave it’ approach the legislature tried to impose last year,” said Jan Jarrett, PennFuture’s director of outreach.
Although Pennsylvania Farm Bureau supported the original bill, it also stands behind the latest proposal. President Guy Donaldson applauded the idea for not only addressing farmers’ concerns, but also increasing environmental protection.
Odor, too. Rendell’s broad proposal goes a step further and attempts to tackle odor management on large farms.
New and expanding large farms (concentrated animal feeding operations and concentrated animal operations) would be required to have best management practices in place.
“It’s difficult to regulate odor because sound science isn’t there yet,” Wolff said. However, science does say best management practices in new facilities mitigate odor problems, he said.
PennFuture said it welcomes this idea but says it also needs to address the odor from manure spread on fields.
Where’s the money? The $13 million price tag for improved air, land and water regulations would be funded through various grants, the agricultural sector and the state’s and governor’s budgets.

Also included in ACRE

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