University of Maryland Extension

Those pesky nuisance claims

Author: 
Nicole Cook, B.S., J.D., LL.M., Environmental and Agricultural, Faculty Legal Specialist, Agriculture Law Education Initiative (ALEI), University of Maryland Eastern Shore

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A farm that fits within or is exempt from construction code requirements, zoning laws, and other building rules and regulations can still run into legal problems if its activities create a nuisance. Nuisance laws are intended to protect the rights of others to use and enjoy their property or to protect the general public health or safety of a community. A farm that creates a nuisance could be subject to a commonlaw court claim even if there is no specific law prohibiting the activity.

There are two types of nuisance claims: private nuisance and public nuisance. A private nuisance occurs when the farm’s activities interfere with another person’s enjoyment of his or her own land. Interference from an urban farm could include noise from animals, equipment or increased customer traffic, significantly increasing dust, introducing strong odors that are deemed to be “unpleasant,” attracting pests, creating vibrations with equipment, creating changes in the water table, etc. To prevent liability for private nuisance, start by consulting your local planning and zoning codes. (See above for information about how to locate your local zoning codes.)

A public nuisance affects the public in general and is not limited to immediate neighbors. A farm with standing water that becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes might be deemed a public nuisance. Keeping animals in unsanitary conditions can also constitute a public nuisance because it can lead to disease that may endanger the public. In order to prevent liability for public nuisance, it is important to be aware of any public health, welfare, or safety concerns that your farm might create.

Being proactive and informing neighbors in advance about your plans for your urban farm is one of the best ways to reduce legal risk. Surprising your neighbors or being indifferent to their complaints can often leave your neighbors feeling like their only option is to sue you to rectify the situation. Let neighbors know in advance that you are aware of relevant regulations, that you intend to be a good neighbor, and that you would appreciate them letting you know if they have any concerns (within reason) so that you can address them in a timely manner.

All nuisances are local

In Eugene, Oregon, chickens or goats that make noise longer than 15 minutes may be prohibited from the neighborhood. See Urban Animal Keeping, City of EUGENE, www.eugene-or.gov/farmanimals; see also Eugene Code (EC) 9.5250.

Seattle, Washington, doesn’t allow “odors or fumes from an urban farm … to escape into the open air in such amounts as to be detrimental to the health of any individuals or the public; or noticeable, discomforting or disagreeable so as to offend the sensibilities of a reasonable individual at a distance of more than 200 feet from an urban farm.” Seattle, Wash. Land Use Code chap. 23.42.051(C).

Marysville, Washington, allows animals, but it requires “All houses, pens or enclosures where chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, pigeons or other domestic fowl or rabbits are kept shall be kept clean and free from disagreeable odors. No organic materials furnishing food for flies shall be allowed to accumulate on the premises. All manure and other refuse must be kept in tightly covered fly-proof receptacles and disposed of at least once each week in a manner approved by the animal control officer. (Ord. 2404 § 1, 2002; Ord. 2013 § 34, 1995).” Marysville, Wash., Municipal Code 10.04.340 (available at https://www.codepublishing.com/WA/Marysville/).

Somerville Massachusetts’ city health inspectors can issue fines if gardens or structures are attracting rodents. Sommerville, MA Code of Ordinances § 9-56

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