NY Agric. & Mkts § 300 et seq. sets forth agricultural districts in the State of New York. “The socio-economic vitality of agriculture in this state is essential to the economic stability and growth of many local communities and the state as a whole. It is, therefore, the declared policy of the state to conserve, protect and encourage the development and improvement of its agricultural land for production of food and other agricultural products.” See NY Agric. & Mkts § 300.
Section 303 sets forth the standards for creation of “agricultural districts.” Any owner or group of owners that owns the greater of: (1) at least 500 acres, or (2) at least ten percent of the land proposed to be included in the district, is eligible to submit a proposal to the county legislative body. At a minimum, the proposal must include “a description of the prosed district, including a map delineating the exterior boundaries which shall conform to tax parcel boundaries, and the tax map identification numbers for every parcel in the posed district.” NYSDAM may impose additional requirements for the proposal. After complying with notice and hearing requirements, the county legislative body may adopt a plan to create an “agricultural district.” In order to be adopted, the plan must include “an appropriate review period,” typically of eight, twelve, or twenty years.
The operative feature of New York’s Right-to-Farm Statute is in section 308, which bars private nuisance suits if “the Commissioner issues an opinion that a particular agricultural practice is sound[.]” Pure Air and Water Inc. of Chemong County v. Davidsen, 668 N.Y.S.2d 248, 249 (1998). The statute only applies to actions for “private nuisance.” However, the same conduct which it protects could still be actionable pursuant to other theories, such as public nuisance, trespass, or violations of federal environmental statutes. See, e.g., Concerned Area Residents for the Environment v. Southview Farm, 843 F.Supp. 1410 (W.D.N.Y. 1993). It is also inapplicable to damages for any personal injury or wrongful death claims. Importantly, the Right-to-Farm statute is limited in scope primarily to land that is designated as an “agricultural district” and “used in agricultural production subject to an agricultural assessment” under section 306.
There is a four-step analysis for a New York Right-to-Farm determination. First, any person may request an opinion “as to whether particular agricultural practices are sound.” A “sound” agricultural practice is defined in section 308(1)(b) as one which is “necessary for the on-farm production, preparation and marketing of agricultural commodities.” Second, the NYSDAM will make this evaluation on a case-by-case basis. In so doing, it is statutorily required to consider whether the agricultural practices are being “conducted by a farm owner or operator participating in” its Agricultural Environmental Management Program (“AEMP”) as well as to “consult appropriate state agencies and any guidelines recommended by the advisory council on agriculture.” Third, the NYSDAM must provide notice once it has issued an opinion. In addition to being published in a newspaper with general circulation in the surrounding area, the notice must also be provided in writing directly to the property owner, as well as owners of adjoining property. NYSDAM’s opinion becomes final unless it is contested by an aggrieved party within 30 days of publication. A party contesting such an opinion faces an uphill battle; courts defer to an agency’s expertise on such a decision, allowing it to stand unless it is “arbitrary and capricious.” Fourth, if the opinion deems a particular agricultural practice to be “sound,” it cannot constitute a “private nuisance” as a matter of law. Because parties have no vested property interest in the right to sue under a private nuisance theory, this result does not constitute an unconstitutional “taking.” If someone does bring a private nuisance suit on account of a “sound” agricultural practice, the Right-to-Farm statute authorizes recovery for the reasonable costs attributable to defending against such a lawsuit.
By enacting the Right-to-Farm statute, New York’s legislature intended to provide some protection for farmland against encroachment from non-agricultural development. Indeed, the legislature expressed particular concern about the potential for competition over land resources to result in a vicious cycle of rising farm taxes, inadequate investment in farm maintenance, and the ultimate idling of productive agricultural land. While reported cases on the subject are scarce, New York’s Right-to-Farm statute has been recognized by academics as a relatively sensible approach to balancing these competing interests, at least as compared to similar statutes in other states.