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September 20, 2013

COA rules the Right to Farm Act is an affirmative defense to zoning violations that defendant must prove by a preponderance.

In Lima Township v. Bateson, et al., the Michigan Court of Appeals concluded that the Michigan Right to Farm Act (“RTFA”) is an affirmative defense to alleged violations of local zoning laws, and that when employed as a defense, the party raising it must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that its challenged activities are protected under the RTFA.

Ernest Bateson’s wife, Pamela Gough, purchased 30 acres of land in Lima Township.  The land was zoned for agricultural uses.  Shortly after the purchase, the Township sued Bateson and Gough alleging that they were using the property to conduct commercial business operations and store commercial vehicles and equipment, all in violation of the Township’s Zoning Ordinance.  The Township asked the trial court to enjoin Bateson and Gough from using the property in this way.  The same day that the Township filed suit, Gough filed a complaint against the Township.  Her suit alleged that she was developing a tree farm on the property, and she asked the court to enter an order stating that her activities fell within the agricultural zoning classification.  In briefing to the trial court, Bateson and Gough also claimed that their activities were protected by the RTFA.  The trial court held a four-day evidentiary hearing, after which it granted summary judgment in favor of the Township and entered an injunction against Bateson and Gough.  The two cases were consolidated on appeal.  The court of appeals reversed and remanded.

The court first noted that the RTFA preempts any local zoning ordinance where an activity covered by the RTFA is barred by the ordinance.  Adhering to the plain language of the Act, the court explained that an activity is covered by the Act, if it is a “farm” or “farm operation” and the “farm” or “farm operation” conforms to generally accepted agricultural and management practices.  The court noted that the RTFA did not expressly state which party bore the burden of proving whether the RTFA applied to a particular activity.  After considering that the legislature’s intent in enacting the statute was to protect farmers from local zoning suits, and that the Act was therefore defensive in nature, the court held that like other affirmative defenses, parties relying on the RTFA must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their conduct is protected under the Act.

During the trial court’s evidentiary hearing, the parties presented conflicting evidence as to whether Bateson and Gough’s activities constituted a “farm” or “farm operation.”  Accordingly, the court remanded the case to the trial court for a renewed determination of whether Bateson and Gough proved by a preponderance of the evidence that their activities constituted a “farm” or “farm operation.”  The court also instructed the trial court that if Bateson and Gough met this first requirement, the lower court should also determine whether they showed by a preponderance of the evidence that the “farm” or “farm operation” complied with the applicable generally accepted management practices.

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