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Missouri Supreme Court upholds law limiting counties’ ability to regulate farming practices

The state's high court ruled against counties concerned about how the law affected their ordinances relating to controlled animal feeding operations.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously upheld a state law that effectively limits counties in their regulation of controlled animal feeding operations, finding it does not conflict with the "right to farm" that is enshrined in the state's Constitution.

The Cedar County Commission, the Cooper County Public Health Center and the Friends of Responsible Agriculture challenged recent changes to a state law pertaining to public health and welfare, which “was amended to prevent counties from enacting public health ordinances that ‘impose standards or requirements on an agricultural operation and its appurtenances … that are inconsistent with, in addition to, different from, or more stringent than any provision of’” state law, according to the court’s 18-page opinion.

The plaintiffs claimed the amended law — enacted by the Missouri legislature in 2021 with House Bill 271 — was unconstitutional, did not apply retroactively and should therefore not invalidate a 2016 Cedar County public health ordinance regulating controlled animal feeding operations, nor a 2019 Cooper County Public Health Center regulation pertaining to air and water quality standards for such feeding operations.

The plaintiffs contended the amended law conflicted with the "right to farm" amendment — a controversial constitutional amendment voters in the state approved in August 2014. The measure, which opponents claim is generally used to protect agricultural operations from nuisance suits filed by neighbors due to unavoidable noise, dust, and odors, ensures the "the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers."

A state court granted Missouri summary judgment, finding that state law trumps local law, prompting the appeal that led to the state high court's affirmation Tuesday.

"Even though the Right-to-Farm Amendment expressly subordinates the rights contained within it to counties’ duly authorized powers under article VI, it can hardly be said that this language somehow renders section 192.300.1 unconstitutional," Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson wrote in his opinion for the Missouri Supreme Court Tuesday.

The court also ruled against the plaintiffs on the issue of retroactivity.

“Appellants are correct that statutes are presumed to operate prospectively ‘unless the legislative intent that they be given retroactive operation clearly appears from the express language of the act or by necessary or unavoidable implication,’” Wilson added. “But, unlike retrospective laws, there is no constitutional prohibition against statutes having retroactive application. The two concepts are different.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Jeffrey said in a statement that his clients are disappointed with the ruling, but they respect the court’s decision.

“Also, they will note for the record that two proposed large hog CAFOs — Tipton East in Cooper County and Z-8 Sow Farm in Livingston County — recently voluntarily terminated their previously issued CAFO permits,” Jeffrey said. “This means that they have appeared to have ‘pulled up stakes’ and made the decision not to construct these CAFOs.”

Plaintiffs argument that HB 271’s title was too broad also fell flat.

“Accordingly, the question is not whether HB 271’s title ‘relating to local government’ is broad. It plainly is," Wilson wrote. "Rather, the question is whether this title is so broad that it fails to provide clear notice to legislators or interested citizens as to the bill’s contents. It is not.

Wilson continued, “Suppose, for example, a legislator or citizen was interested in tracking potential legislation that might limit local government’s authority to regulate CAFOs. The title of HB 271 is sufficiently clear to give such a person notice that they may want to examine its contents and track its progress.”

Categories:Appeals, Environment, Law

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