By: Paul J. Bruder, Esq.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently sided with a Columbia County farmer, and in the process set an important environmental precedent in a long-running case that is likely to benefit smaller farmers throughout Pennsylvania. The Court ruled that Pennsylvania’s family farms will not have to comply with municipal ordinances that are stricter than state law.
Writing for the Court in a majority ruling, Justice Max Baer said Montour Township could not impose regulations on a local farm that were more stringent than state environmental regulations on larger farms. The Court said it would violate the principles of statutory construction to allow local municipalities to impose rules on small farms that were more burdensome than those placed on large farms.
The issue at the center of the case was manure management for Mr. Scott Sponenberg’s proposed 4,800-pig nursery. The Township’s “adverse impact rule” would have required Sponenberg to give “legally binding assurances” that his operation would not have adverse impacts, such as noise, dust, odor, groundwater contamination or heavy truck traffic, on neighboring properties. These rules are stricter than the requirements of the state’s Nutrient Management Act, which requires large-scale, high-intensity operations to have a nutrient management plan.
Because nutrient management plans are “costly and burdensome,” Baer said, they are voluntary for smaller operations. The Nutrient Management Act also protects farms by preempting local regulations that might be more strict than state regulations. After a Commonwealth Court panel ruled Sponenberg had to obey the township’s regulations, Sponenberg appealed to the state supreme court, which disagreed, saying said Sponenberg was still protected by the Act’s preemption protection. “A finding of no preemption would be unreasonable, if not absurd, and would in fact defeat the legislative purpose of establishing statewide criteria which simultaneously protects the public and encourages this important agrarian industry to thrive in Pennsylvania,” Baer said.
This issue could have affected thousands across the state and could have essentially wiped out the exemption for filing a Plan that was granted by the General Assembly. But as a result of this decision, local governments should have a clear understanding that they can’t exceed the standards contained in the Nutrient Management Act and must instead regulate through proper zoning.