Recent decisions by the Alabama Supreme Court and U.S. appellate courts are encouraging for landowners who’ve seen ordinances, zoning and regulations encroach on private property rights, says Alabama Farmers Federation Executive Director Paul Pinyan.

“As the state’s largest farm organization, the Federation monitors judicial action that could have a negative impact on our members’ ability to earn a living for their families,” said Pinyan, an attorney.

“Often, cases not directly related to farming establish precedent that can have far-reaching implications for agriculture and forestry.

“Last week’s decision by the Alabama Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in a Madison County case is encouraging because it allows landowners to challenge the taking of private land through annexation and zoning.”

The case stems from annexation of land by the Town of Gurley in 2004, where developers intended to build a rock quarry. The land was subsequently zoned for agriculture, preventing construction of the quarry.

The landowners planned to sell the site to Vulcan Materials for $3.75 million, but the price dropped to $1 million following the zoning decision.

The developers, M&N Materials, sued Gurley in 2005 for the difference in the sales price, plus interest and legal fees. A Madison County jury awarded $5 million to M&N in 2011, but the Alabama Supreme Court reversed that decision in December of 2012.

The Alabama Farmers Federation joined other business and landowner groups in petitioning the court to rehear the case.

“Whether you support the construction of the rock quarry or not, this case raises serious questions about the use of annexation and zoning to restrict the use of private property,” Pinyan said.

“If the court’s reversal stands, it sets a precedent that could be used by municipalities to stop poultry farms, logging, cotton harvest or almost any legal agricultural activity.”

The Alabama Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case May 3.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 20 that logging roads are not subject to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) storm water permit requirements under the Clean Water Act.

“This decision is a victory for the forest industry and is encouraging news for all rural landowners,” Pinyan said.

“The Obama administration has worked to expand the scope of the Clean Water Act far beyond congressional intent. In this case, the court affirmed previous interpretation of the law and essentially overturned a new rule that would subject logging roads to the same permitting standards used for manufacturing facilities.”

In another decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a civil suit alleging utility poles violated the Clean Water Act by discharging wood preservative into the environment.

The American Farm Bureau Federation filed a brief in support of the defendant, Pacific Gas and Electric. Had the dismissal been overturned, it could have opened the door for lawsuits against farmers over the environmental impact of fence posts, barns or other structures.

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