The Supreme Court, in an appeal from Superior Court, held that judges, not juries, should determine the applicability of the Right to Farm Act’s (“RTFA”) prohibition on nuisance claims. It further determined that the use of recycled biosolids as fertilizer constituted a normal agricultural use under the RTFA.
Thirty-four individuals living adjacent to a 220 acre farm owned by George Phillips (“Neighbors”), brought private nuisance claims against Phillips and Synagro Central. The nuisance arose from the application of 11,635 wet tons of recycled biosolids as fertilizers on 14 of Phillips’ fields by Synagro. After the biolsolids were applied, Neighbors, many of whom were also farmers, alleged extremely offensive, and unusually noxious, odors emanating onto their properties. Phillips and Synagro moved for summary judgment on the basis that Neighbors’ nuisance claims were barred by § 954(a) of the RTFA. Section 954(a) prohibits nuisance actions against agricultural operations that had operated for more than a year prior to the filing of the complaint, and the conditions complained of had existed substantially unchanged since the established date of operation and were normal agricultural operations.
The Court of Common Pleas of York County granted summary judgment for Phillips and Synagro, holding that because the farm had lawfully operated for more than a year prior to filing, and the application of fertilizer was a normal agricultural operation that had existed substantially unchanged since the farm began operating, the nuisance claims were barred. The Superior Court reversed and remanded. Initially, it found a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the switch to biosolids constituted a substantial change. However, it determined that since the nuisance action was filed more than a year after the change, it did not matter. It also found that whether the use of biosolids was a “normal agricultural use” was a material question of fact that should have been decided by a jury.
On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed. It found the “normal agricultural use” determination was to be made by the judge; not a jury. The only question at issue, the Court reasoned, was whether Phillips met the statutory requirements. Answering that question did not involve fact finding; only the application of the statute’s definition to the record’s facts. Having made this determination, the Court then held that the use of biosolids was a “normal agricultural use” and that the nuisance claims were barred by the RTFA.
Click here to read: Gilbert v. Synagro Central, 121 MAP 2014 (Pa. Dec. 21, 2015).