Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday vetoed legislation that limits damages for property owners who live near hog farms and other farming operations in North Carolina.
Under House Bill 467, the damages that a court could award to a property owner who claims nuisance damage by a nearby agricultural or forestry operation to no more than the actual market value of that property.
"The agriculture and forestry industries are vital to our economy and we should encourage them to thrive," Cooper said in a statement. "But nuisance laws can be used to protect property rights and make changes for good."
North Carolina, for example, was able to use nuisance laws to win damages from the Tennessee Valley Authority over air pollution from the utility's power plants that was affecting air quality in North Carolina.
"Special protection for one industry opens the door to weakening our nuisance laws in other areas, which can allow real harm to homeowners, the environment and everyday North Carolinians," Cooper said.
The measure initially was aimed at capping damages against Smithfield Foods subsidiary Murphy-Brown, which is involved in 26 federal lawsuits in the state. But House Republicans leery of getting involved in pending litigation last month revised the bill so it affects only future lawsuits.
"This is a big win on behalf of hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, including many who have seen their property and health harmed by the animal waste literally sprayed on them from factory farms," Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at Environmental Working Group, said in a statement. "If this bill had become law, the long-standing legal rights of hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians would have been radically restricted, and Smithfield Foods and other companies would have been given free rein to pollute communities at will."
Documents filed Friday in the lawsuits against Murphy-Brown details testing that found fecal bacteria from pigs in the yards of homes within a half-mile of hogs farms in North Carolina.
"It's disappointing that the Legislature passed this bill to strip away legal rights of certain citizens, although these same rights are available to all other North Carolinians," Molly Diggins, director of the North Carolina Sierra Club, said in a statement. "While the majority of farming and forestry operations may not cause problems, there are outliers in any industry. Neighbors whose rights are harmed by these operations should be able to receive fair compensation under the law."
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Chamber called Cooper's action an "anti-jobs veto."
"[It] puts the interests of plaintiff attorneys before those of North Carolina’s greatest economic engine," Chamber President and Chief Executive Lew Ebert said in a statement, noting agriculture accounts for about one-sixth of the state economy.
The North Carolina Pork Council called on lawmakers to override the veto.
"The ratified bill strikes a balance in providing clarity and certainty to farmers while ensuring that property owners remain protected," the group said in a statement. "Our laws offer special protections for a wide range of industries – and farmers are among them. North Carolina’s pork producers follow stringent environmental regulations."
"I am incredibly disappointed in Gov. Cooper for once again turning his back on family farmers and rural North Carolina and putting out-of-state trial lawyers first with this misguided veto," added Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson.