Idaho Supreme Court Weighs in on Nuisance and Right to Farm Act
In recent case of McVicars v. Christensen, 320 P.3d 948 (2014), the Idaho Supreme Court considered an appeal from a Nez Perce County district court’s finding that Bret and Eddieka Christensen’s (the “Christensens”) building constituted a private nuisance to John and Julie McVicars (“McVicars”). This case is interesting because it discusses Idaho’s Right to Farm Act and how it may or may not apply to the expansion of farm activities.
By way of background, in 2006, the Christensens obtained a building permit and began construction of an indoor riding arena building on their property near the McVicarses’ property. The building when completed was fully enclosed by the membrane and had dimensions of 120 feet wide by 260 feet long. The height of the building was estimated to be between 42 and 50 feet at its peak. For the sake of comparison, the building is roughly four to five stories in height, only fourteen yards shorter than a football field in length, and has a width of twelve semi-trailers placed side-by-side.
As usual in these cases of neighbor versus neighbor, the relationship between the McVicarses and the Christensens deteriorated rapidly once the building was completed.
On July 16, 2007, the McVicarses filed a complaint alleging that the fabric building was a private and public nuisance. The complaint alleged that odor, dust, and flies accumulated from the Christensens' horse operation, and that noise and light from the fabric building interfered with the McVicarses’ use of their property. As a remedy, the McVicarses sought money damages, the dismantling of the building, and a permanent injunction on the current uses of the building. An amended complaint was filed in 2009, expanding on the private nuisance claim.
In 2011, the district court found that the Christensens’ course of conduct unreasonably interfered with the McVicarses’ enjoyment of their property and was therefore a private nuisance. The court order included a mandatory injunction requiring the Christensens to remove the fabric building from its current location and to fully abate the cumulative effect of noise, dust, traffic, lights, and odor that constituted the private nuisance. The Christensens appealed and the district court issued a stay on the enforcement of the judgment until the appeals process concluded.
Two salient issues on appeal were: (a) whether the district court erred in its remedies to abate the private nuisance; and (b) whether the district court erred in finding Idaho’s Right to Farm Act does not apply to this case.
In regards to the remedies to address nuisance, the Supreme Court stated that generally, “[A] landowner does not have the right under nuisance law to prohibit upon adjoining land the erection of structures that he or she considers not to be aesthetically pleasing.” The Christensens lawfully constructed the building on their own property in accordance with all relevant zoning ordinances and therefore the district court should have fashioned reasonable restrictions to limit such interference with the McVicarses’ use and enjoyment of their property rather than completely enjoining the building from its current location.
Right to Farm Act
In the initial action, the district court held that the Right to Farm Act (“RTFA”) did not apply because the act applies only to the encroachment of urbanizing areas and in circumstances where there have been changes in the surrounding nonagricultural activities. On appeal, the Christensens argued that the district court erred by not contemplating the applicability of the RTFA on expansion of farm activities in an existing agricultural area.
In making its decision, the Idaho Supreme Court reviewed Idaho Code Section 22-4503, which states in part:
No agricultural operation, agricultural facility or expansion thereof shall be or become a nuisance, private or public, by any changed conditions in or about the surrounding nonagricultural activities after it has been in operation for more than one (1) year, when the operation, facility or expansion was not a nuisance at the time it began or was constructed. (Emphasis added).
The Idaho Supreme Court stated that “the language of I.C. § 22–4503 clearly carves out an exception where a change in nonagricultural activities come to an existing agricultural operation or facility. The statute does not apply in this case because the McVicarses’ home predated the building in question, and there is no evidence of a change in the nonagricultural activities in the area near the fabric building.” The Court held that the change in conditions impacting the McVicarses’ property came from the offending nuisance, not from changes in the character of the surroundings. Given this, the district court was correct in not applying an exemption under the RTFA.
The Supreme Court remanded the case with instructions for the district court to analyze whether the cumulative effects of the activities on the Christensens' property constituted a nuisance in fact without considering the mere size and proximity of the building alone to the McVicarses’ property.
This case provides guidance in that not all farm activities will be protected under the Right to Farm Act against nuisance claims. If there are pre-existing structures and the character of the adjoining uses predates the farming "nuisances", then in such instances farmers may find themselves in the same situation as the Christensens.