Environmental

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

Sparse dry weather conditions haven't dampened concerns about the extent of agricultural water quality problems we may see when summer weather finally arrives.   Despite the weather, harmful algal bloom (HAB) predictions for the summer are already out and are one important  measure of water quality impacts that are attributed to agriculture.   As HABs arise, so too do the questions about what is being done  to reduce HABs and other water quality impacts resulting from agricultural production activities.  We set out to answer these questions by examining key players in the water quality arena:  the states. 

In our new national report, State Legal Approaches to Reducing Water Quality Impacts from the Use of Agricultural Nutrients on Farmland, we share the results of research that examines how states are legally responding to the impact of agricultural nutrients on water quality.  After examining state laws, regulations and policies across the country, we can make several observations about state responses to the agricultural water quality issue.  First, more activity occurs in states that are near significant water resources such as the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, Mississippi River and coastal regions.  States in those areas have more legal solutions in place to address nutrient impacts.  Next, nearly all states rely heavily on nutrient management planning as a tool for reducing agricultural nutrient impacts on water quality.  We also note that there is an absence of monitoring, bench marking, and data collection requirements in the laws that address agricultural nutrient management and water quality.  Finally, many states have piecemeal, reactionary approaches rather than an organized statewide strategy accompanied by a locally-driven governance structure.

As we conducted our research, two types of approaches quickly emerged:  mandatory and voluntary.  Mandatory approaches are  those that require specific actions or inactions by persons who use nutrients on agricultural lands, while voluntary approaches allow a user of agricultural nutrients to decide whether to engage in programs and practices that relate to water quality, with or without incentives for doing so.  Because we could identify mandatory approaches through statutory and administrative codes, we were able to compile the laws into a database.  Our compilation of Mandatory Legal Approaches to Agricultural Nutrient Management is available on the National Agricultural Law Center's website. 

We classified the state mandatory approaches into three categories:

1.  Nutrient management planning is the most common mandatory tool used by the states.  All but two states mandate nutrient management planning, but the laws vary in terms of who must have or prepare a nutrient management plan (NMP).  In the report, we provide examples of states that require NMPs for animal feeding operations, those that require NMPs only in targeted areas, those that require all operators to have an NMP, and those that require preparers of NMPs to be certified.

2.  Nutrient application restrictions are becoming increasingly common across the states, but also vary by type of restrictions.  In the report, we categorize four types of nutrient application restrictions and present the combination of restrictions in place in five states across the country:

---Weather condition restrictions

---Setback and buffer requirements

---Restrictions on method of application

---Targeted area restrictions

3.  Certification of nutrient applicators is an approach used by 18 states, but state laws differ in terms of who must obtain certification.  Some states require only animal feeding operations and commercial "for hire" applicators to be certified, while others extend certification to private landowners, users of chemigation equipment, or those in targeted sensitive areas.  We provide examples of each type of certification approach.

The number and types of voluntary approaches to reducing agricultural nutrient impacts on water quality is extensive and more than we could identify and gather into a state compilation.  In our report, however, we present examples of four types of voluntary approaches states are taking:

1.  Technical assistance in the form of technical expertise and informational tools.

2.  Economic incentives such as cost share programs, tax credits and water quality trading programs.

3.  Legal protections for those who engage in nutrient reduction efforts.

4.  Research and education programs that aim to increase understanding of the problem and expand the knowledge base of those who use and work with nutrients.

Please read our report, available here, to learn more about legal approaches states are taking in response to concerns about the impact of agricultural nutrients on water quality.  We produced the report with funding from the USDA National Agricultural Library in partnership with the National Agricultural Law Center.

Posted In: Environmental
Tags: agricultural nutrients, water quality
Comments: 0
By: Ellen Essman, Thursday, June 06th, 2019

The controversy over the 2015 Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule never really leaves the news. Case in point: last week, on May 28, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas decided to keep a preliminary injunction that prevents the enforcement of the 2015 version of the rule in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, meaning that the 2015 rule does not currently apply in those states.  Meanwhile, at the end of March, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio was not persuaded by Ohio and Tennessee to issue a preliminary injunction which would have halted the execution of the 2015 rule in those states.  All of this judicial activity is taking place while the Trump administration is working on a replacement for the Obama administration’s 2015 rule. 

WOTUS background

If you’re a regular follower of the Ag Law Blog, you know we’ve written numerous updates on the WOTUS saga.  For a refresher, the WOTUS rule defines which waters are considered “waters of the United States,” and are consequently protected under the Clean Water Act. In 2015, the Obama administration promulgated its final WOTUS rule, which many agricultural groups and states felt regulated too many waters.  Needless to say, many lawsuits over the rule ensued. The Trump administration, hoping to replace the Obama-era rule, released its new proposed rule on February 14, 2019.  The comment period for the proposed rule ended on April 15, 2019.  The new rule is forthcoming, but in the meantime, due to all of the litigation, whether or not the 2015 WOTUS rule is applicable varies by state.  For an explanation of the 2015 rule and the new proposed rule, see our previous blog post here

Judge continues to block 2015 WOTUS in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi…

At the end of May, Judge George C. Hanks Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas handed down a decision remanding the 2015 WOTUS rule to the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers and ordering that a previously issued preliminary injunction stay in place, meaning that the government should not implement the 2015 rule in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  While Judge Hanks declined to take up the questions raised by the plaintiffs about the constitutionality of the 2015 rule, he did determine that the agencies violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) at the rule’s conception.  The APA is a federal law that controls how federal agencies must go about making regulations.  Importantly, the APA dictates that agencies should give the American public notice of a proposed rule, as well as a chance to comment on a proposed rule.  In the case of Obama’s 2015 WOTUS rule, the definition of “adjacent waters” was changed from being based upon a “hydrologic connection” in the proposed rule to being based on how many feet separated the waters in the final rule. Interested parties did not have any chance to comment on the change before it was included in the final rule.  What is more, interested parties did not have the chance to comment on the final report that served as the “technical basis” for the rule.  For these reasons, Judge Hanks found that the final rule violated the APA.  As a result, he remanded the rule to the agencies to fix and left in place the preliminary injunction blocking the implementation of the rule in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. 

…but 2015 WOTUS still applies in Ohio and Tennessee

A decision in the District Court for the Southern District of Ohio came to the opposite conclusion of the Texas case.  In March of this year, Judge Sargus denied the states’ motion for a preliminary injunction against carrying out the 2015 WOTUS rule.  Sargus did not agree that Ohio and Tennessee were being irreparably harmed by having to follow the 2015 rule, and therefore did not go through with what he called the “extraordinary measure” of providing the states preliminary injunctive relief.  Basically, Ohio and Tennessee were not persuasive enough in their argument, and “failed to draw the Court’s attention” to any specific harm the states faced from the 2015 rule.  Therefore, as of this writing, the 2015 WOTUS rule still applies in Ohio and Tennessee. 

What regulation applies in which states?

All of these lawsuits with different outcomes beg the question: what rule is applicable in which state?  EPA has a map depicting which states must currently follow the 2015 rule, and which states instead must follow the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS.  The map has not been updated since September of 2018.  Since the last update, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, whose governors’ mansions flipped from red to blue in November, have pulled out of lawsuits against the 2015 rule.  These withdrawals could affect which version of WOTUS applies in these states. 

Although the outcomes in the different lawsuits throughout the country presently affect which version of the WOTUS rule applies in which state, it is not clear how the rulings will ultimately affect the 2015 WOTUS rule.  The Trump administration is currently carrying out its plan to scrap the rule and replace it with new language, which may render all of the existing legal fights over the 2015 rule irrelevant. 

What’s next?

The new WOTUS rule, which is expected in its final form later this year, will probably not mark the end of the WOTUS debate.  While implementation of the new rule will likely make the aforementioned lawsuits moot, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be out of the woods yet.  With all the contention over this topic, it is likely lawsuits will be filed challenging the new rule, as well.  Disagreement over what makes up WOTUS might be around for as long as rivers flow. 

By: Evin Bachelor, Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

With all the rain and delayed planting that Ohio farmers have experienced this spring, signing a solar lease has been a very appealing prospect for many farmland owners.  While this may be the right decision for a farm, it is very important that the farmland owner understand exactly what he or she is signing.  Once an energy developer offers to pay you to enter into an agreement, and you sign that agreement, its terms will be legally binding.

In our recent blog post on solar leasing, we discussed some of the early documents that a farmland owner is likely to receive from an interested solar energy developer.  Further, we gave some general advice on what farmland owners should do if an energy developer wants to discuss leasing his or her land.  One of our main suggestions was to take the time to fully understand what the farmland owner is getting into, and that is where this post comes in.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the important provisions of a solar lease that you as a farmland owner should look for in your solar lease, and understand what they mean.  A good solar lease will be very thorough, and include a lot of legalese.  Our upcoming Ohio Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, due out in the next month, will go more in depth than this blog post on the terms below and more.  It would also be a wise decision to consult with an attorney to ensure that your understanding of your solar lease reflects what the documents say.

For now, here are a few provisions to be on the lookout for in your solar lease:

The term.  How long does this lease last?  Most solar leases last for 20 to 30 years.  This is the time during which solar energy is being collected and sold.  Solar energy developers like this multi-decade duration because it allows them to use of the solar panels for their expected productive lifespan.

Thirty years is a long time.  Many careers are retirement-eligible after that period, and many farms will transition to the next generation in that amount of time.  This long of a term is not necessarily a bad thing.  It just means that a farmland owner should look back and look ahead.  Think back 30 years to 1989.  What all has changed on your farm?  What would it have looked like to not be able to use this ground for the past 30 years?  Now look ahead.  What do you expect your needs and those of your family to look like when this lease ends in 2049?  Only you can determine if not being able to use your land for that long is a good thing.

Phases.  How is this lease broken up?  We just explained that most solar leases will last for 20 to 30 years, but that clock usually starts ticking once construction has started on the project.  Solar energy developers will often reserve a year or two during which they can conduct their final feasibility studies and obtain necessary permits.  Some leases structure this pre-construction phase as merely an option phase, meaning that the energy developer will pay a small amount of rent to keep its option alive for that one or two-year period, but it does not necessarily have to commence construction.

Further, toward the end of the term, the energy developer may have written in an option to renew for another 5 or 10 years.  These renewals are often structured as a right that the energy developer may exercise merely by giving notice to the landowner.  Additionally, in the middle, if there is a natural disaster that puts the operation out of service for any period of time, a solar lease may stop the clock from ticking until the project is operational again and solar energy is being collected.

The important take-away for the phases is being able to know when each phase begins and ends.  When all of the different phases are combined, instead of just a 30-year lease, you could be looking at a 42-year agreement.  The only way to know how long it could last is to thoroughly read the entire lease.

A description of the premises.  Every solar lease will contain a description of the premises.  If an entire parcel is being leased, then this part is fairly easy.  However, if only a portion of the parcel is being lease, the farmland owner will want to make sure that the lease provides an adequate description so that the leased portion can be easily determined on the ground.  Often, this will include a survey and maps.  Knowing the boundaries is important because these leases are often exclusive, such that the farmland owner has little or no use or access of the leased land throughout the term.

Easements.  What rights are being granted to the solar energy developer?  Solar leases include a series of easements that give the solar energy developer the right to use your land.  Some of the common easements include a:

  • Construction easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property in order to construct the solar facility
  • Access easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property to reach the solar facility
  • Transmission easement: a right to install power lines, poles, and other equipment to transmit the energy produced by the solar panels to the grid
  • Solar easement: a right to unobstructed access to the sun without interference from structures or other improvements
  • Catch-all easement: a general right to do whatever is necessary for the benefit of the project

Solar energy developers want their easements to be as broad and generous as possible in order to maximize their flexibility with the project.  This is not always to the advantage of the farmland owner.  If the lease is general enough to allow the solar energy developer to sub-lease to another entity such as a telecommunications company, the landowner will have a difficult time preventing the solar energy developer from doing so.  The farmland owner wants to make sure that the easements being granted are specific enough to not result in any surprises.

Landowner obligations and rights.  What does the lease require of you as the farmland owner?  Usually private solar energy developers include a non-interference provision, a quiet enjoyment provision, and an exclusivity provision.  All combined, these provisions are a promise by the farmland owner to not enter the solar facilities without prior permission, not interfere with the solar facilities, and not allow anyone else to do so for the duration of the term.

Further, solar leases often include a confidentiality provision that courts will enforce as legally binding.  These provisions allow the solar energy developer to control the flow of its proprietary information, and also prevent landowners from talking with one another about topics such as rent rates.  It is important to understand:

  • What information is protected
  • If there are any exceptions
  • When consent might be granted
  • If specific penalties apply
  • How long confidentiality lasts

The solar lease may also include a provision about farmland owner improvements.  These explain if and when the landowner needs to obtain prior approval of the solar energy developer in order to build a structure or plant something that may interfere with the solar project.

Property maintenance.  Who is going to mow?  Ohio landowners have a legal duty to cut noxious weeds, and a well drafted lease will cover which party to the lease bears responsibility for keeping the leased land clear.  Usually, the solar energy developer will take this responsibility, but it helps to have this in writing.

Cleanup terms.  Cleanup involves a lot of questions.  Does the solar lease require the solar energy developer to restore the land to its previous state?  If so, how is this measured?  Will all stakes and foundations be removed?  Will all improvements, like roadways, be removed?  How will the solar energy developer guarantee that it will be able to pay for this cleanup in 30 years?  Does it post a security, and if so, when?  A thorough lease will answer these questions.

Tax and conservation penalties.  Tax and conservation also involves a lot of questions because constructing and operating a solar facility will make the property ineligible for the full benefits of CAUV and most conservation programs.  Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover real estate taxes?  Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover the three-year lookback penalty for removing land from CAUV?  What will the solar energy developer do toward the end of the lease so that the land can be put back into production and made CAUV eligible again?  Similar questions must be asked for conservation programs.

Compensation.  It’s not that we saved the fun and best part for last.  We just wanted to make sure that compensation is not the first and only thing considered when deciding whether or not to enter into a solar lease.  While it certainly is important, some of the issues discussed above must be just as carefully understood.

The solar leases that we have seen involve cash rent that increases over time based upon a fixed escalator.  The escalator is a percent increase.  If the escalator increases at a rate greater than inflation, then the farmland owner will receive more bang for his or her land.  However, if the escalator increases at a rate lower than long-term inflation, then the solar energy developer will have to pay less over time.

Another point of compensation to consider is how damages will be calculated for harm to property and crops.  When the solar energy developer decides it is time to start construction, its option and easements grant it the right to begin construction even if there is a crop already in the ground.  This makes it in a farmland owner’s best interest to have this issue addressed up front.  These damages will often be calculated my multiplying the number of acres by the average county yield for that crop by that crop’s commodity future price with the Chicago Board of Trade for a given date.  This provides an objective calculation for damages.

Verbal promises.  A note of caution: if the solar energy developer makes you a verbal promise, ask for that promise to be included in the written lease.  If there is a conflict between what a representative of the solar energy developer tells you and what is written in the lease, the terms in the written lease are likely to prevail.

The activity we are seeing across Ohio right now with solar reminds us of the early stages of the recent wind and shale energy booms.  Some of the biggest regrets that we hear about are from landowners who thought they were getting a better deal than they actually did.  Reading through, understanding, and thinking about the lease is an essential part of calculating whether or not the lease being offered is actually a good deal for a farmland owner and his or her family.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to your team of professionals in this process.  Your attorney, tax professional, extension educator, and others can be a great resource.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

We haven’t seen much sun in Ohio lately, but that hasn’t stopped the growth of solar energy development.  In the past two years, the Ohio Power Siting Board has approved six large scale solar projects with generating capacities of 50MW or more, and three more projects are pending approval.   These “solar farms” require a large land base, and in Ohio that land base is predominantly farmland.   The nine solar energy facilities noted on this map will cover about 16,500 acres in Brown, Clermont, Hardin, Highland and Vinton counties.  About 12,300 of those acres were previously used for agriculture. 

We’re hearing that solar energy developers are on the lookout for more land in these and several other counties across the state.  As the markets fluctuate and weather continues to prevent planting, leasing farmland to a solar energy developer might look pretty appealing.  But we always urge caution and due diligence for any leasing situation, and solar energy is no exception. 

What should you do if an energy developer wants to discuss leasing your farmland for a large scale solar energy facility?  Our best advice is not to jump too quickly.  Instead, take the time to fully understand what you’re getting into.  A typical solar lease can last for 30 years and thus can have long term legal, financial and social implications for a farmland owner.  An important initial question is how does this type of land use fit into your future vision for your land, your farm operation, and your family?  If you don’t yet know much about large scale solar development and what it means for your land, give a listen to this webinar from our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center.

In this post, we’ll focus on the beginning of the solar leasing legal process.   The large scale solar projects in Ohio range from 600 to 3,300 acres of land, so a developer first has to assemble the land base once it identifies an area for a solar development project.   Leasing the land is the typical mechanism used for the solar projects in Ohio.  If a developer is interested in leasing your land, the first documents you may receive from the developer are a letter of intent and/or an option to lease.  These documents are the precursors to a solar lease but, like a lease, are written in favor of the developer and establish legal rights for the developer.  Careful review is critical, as these documents can tie up the land and the landowner for several years or more.

The letter of intent Some developers use a written letter of intent to notify a landowner of the developer’s interest in a parcel of land.  The purpose of the letter is to begin the process of considering the land for a long term solar lease.   Note, however, that a letter of intent might also contain a confidentiality clause that would prevent the landowner from talking with other developers about the land or sharing details of the developer’s interest with anyone.   Be aware that courts will generally enforce a signed letter of intent as a legally binding contract if the developer has offered the landowner a payment or similar benefit for signing the letter.   By signing confidentiality provisions in a letter of intent, a landowner can be foreclosed from considering other solar leasing opportunities.

The option to leaseMore commonly, the first document a solar developer will ask a landowner to sign is an option to lease.  Don’t be fooled by the name of this document and think that it’s not a legally binding agreement.  While an option is not the same as a lease, it can have the same legal effect of tying up the land for a certain period of time and might also dictate many of the terms of the lease if the developer decides to move forward on the project.

An option to lease grants the solar developer rights to explore the possibility of using the land for a solar project, but the developer may choose not to lease the land or develop the project.  The option period, typically up to five years, gives the developer time to conduct due diligence on the property, assemble other land parcels, secure financing, and obtain government approval for the project.  At the end of the option period, the developer should decide whether or not to proceed with the project.  An option also can give the developer the right to terminate and back out of the option at any time prior to the end of the option period. 

On the other hand, a landowner doesn’t have an option to back out once he or she signs an option to lease.  The landowner is bound for the entire option period.   Like a letter of intent, an option can contain confidentiality and “exclusive dealing” provisions that prevent the landowner from sharing details or entering into leasing opportunities with other developers during the option period.  The option might also require the landowner to cooperate with the developer’s due diligence and help the developer obtain approvals and permits.  Many options also include language that allows the developer to assign the option to another solar developer.

Be aware that an option can also contain significant leasing terms that carry over if the developer proceeds with the project.  For example, in addition to allowing the developer to consider the land for a project, the option to lease could also include provisions for the period of the actual long term solar lease, the lease payment amount, easement rights, and landowner obligations.  Landowners might think that such terms could be negotiable later if the parties sign an “official” solar lease, but the option language may bind the landowner to the leasing terms that are presented in the option.  Sometimes, the option itself becomes the lease.  The net effect:  a landowner who thinks he or she is just signing a five year option agreement might also be committing to a 30 year solar lease and a predetermined lease payment.

What about crop production during the option period?  An option might contain language stating that the landowner may continue managing and operating the property in the same way after agreeing to the option.  But the option might also allow the developer to enter the property and proceed with the project at any time, including when crops are in the ground, although the option might not provide the landowner payment for the lost production.  In that case, the landowner simply loses out on the crop if the option doesn’t contain provisions for lost production.

As for payment for the option, a landowner usually receives an initial payment for signing the option, perhaps several thousand dollars or more.  During the option period, the landowner also typically receives an annual payment that is based on number of acres, perhaps $20 dollars per acre or more. 

Should you have an attorney review an option to lease?  Yes.  Option language can vary and we surely haven’t addressed all potential issues in this post.   A close examination by an attorney shouldn’t take much time or cost a lot and will ensure that you fully understand the legal implications of entering into the option to lease. 

Are the terms of an option negotiable?  That’s up to the landowner and the developer, but don’t assume that the developer won’t negotiate.  If you’re faced with an option to lease and don’t like the terms, try negotiating.  An attorney can be helpful here, also.

In our next solar leasing post, we’ll review the terms of a solar lease and consider how the lease can impact agricultural landowners over the typical 30 year lease period.  Watch also for our upcoming Ohio Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, due out in the next month, which will provide a detailed examination of the solar leasing process.

By: Evin Bachelor, Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

Lawsuits can be a long and drawn out process, and the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) lawsuit has demonstrated that.  Two and a half months after the complaint in Drewes Farm Partnership v. City of Toledo was filed by the farm, which parties will be allowed to participate in the lawsuit is becoming somewhat clearer, but it might not be over yet.  However, a conference call between the court and the current parties scheduled for the end of this week may signal that some substantive action is on the horizon.

The State of Ohio is now a party.  Judge Zouhary granted Ohio Attorney General Yost’s motion to intervene, making the State of Ohio a party to the lawsuit.  The procedural rules for federal courts permit non-parties to ask a court to allow them into a lawsuit either as of right or at the judge’s discretion.  As of right means that a statute, rule, or case gives a non-party a right to enter into a lawsuit as a party.  In contrast, a discretionary intervention allows a judge to grant a motion to intervene at his or her discretion so long as the person or entity seeking to intervene has a “common question of law or fact” with a current party to the lawsuit.  Non-parties often argue both in order to cover all of their bases, which is what the Ohio Attorney General did in this case.  Judge Zouhary focused his analysis on discretionary intervention, and found that the state has asserted the same question as the plaintiff, Drewes Farms, in that Ohio’s constitution, statutes, and administrative regulations preempt the LEBOR amendment to Toledo’s city charter.  The court also noted that the City of Toledo did not oppose the state’s intervention.  Based on these points, the court granted the motion to intervene.  The State of Ohio may now make arguments and participate in the lawsuit as a full party.

Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water are denied party status.  Days after allowing the Ohio Attorney General’s intervention, Judge Zouhary decided that neither Lake Erie nor Toledoans for Safe Water will be allowed to intervene as parties.  Much like the Ohio Attorney General, these non-parties made arguments to support both forms of intervention.  Judge Zouhary believed that neither Lake Erie nor Toledoans for Safe Water met the requirements for either form of intervention.  As for Toledoans for Safe Water, the court found that it had no right to intervene since it does not have a substantial interest in defending the charter amendment.  Just being the group that put LEBOR on the ballot is not enough.  Further, since the group recognized that its arguments about the rights of nature are novel and not currently recognized in U.S. law, allowing the party to intervene and make these arguments would cause undue delay.  As for Lake Erie, Judge Zouhary noted that the only basis for intervention cited in the motion was LEBOR itself, and that LEBOR only gave Lake Erie the right to enforce its rights in the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas.  Therefore, neither Lake Erie nor Toledoans for Safe Water will be able to participate in the lawsuit at this time.

But Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water still want in.  Shortly after their motions to intervene were denied, Lake Erie and Toledoans for Safe Water filed two documents with the court: a motion to stay pending appeal and a notice of appeal.  First, the motion to stay pending appeal asks the court to pause the proceedings while the non-parties ask an appellate court to review Judge Zouhary’s decision.  Their hope is that no decisions would be made in their absence should the appellate court decide that their intervention should be granted.  Drewes Farm has already filed a brief in opposition to the motion to stay, which asks the court to continue the case as quickly as possible.  Second, the notice of appeal is a required notice to the court and the parties that an appeal of a judge’s decision has been made to the U.S. Sixth Circuit.  An appeal of this sort, especially one involving a discretionary act, imposes a high burden on the appellant in order to succeed.

Conference call set for Friday, May 17th regarding a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.  On May 7th, Judge Zouhary issued an order stating that the parties must submit letters in a joint filing regarding a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.  Our case law updates often talk about motions for summary judgment, but motions for judgment on the pleadings are less frequently discussed.  Motions for judgment on the pleadings are requests for the court to make a decision after a complaint and answer (and, when allowed, a reply) have been filed.  The court can make a decision at this stage only if it finds that there is no real dispute about the facts.  The parties essentially agree about what happened, and all the court has to decide is how the law applies to the facts in the pleadings.  A motion for summary judgment generally involves the presentation of additional facts that were not included in the pleadings, but makes a similar request.  The court can grant a motion for judgment on the pleadings in part, which means that some of the case will be resolved and some will continue, but these motions can also be used to end the entire case.

It would be quite interesting to be a fly on the wall during the conference call scheduled for this Friday.  It seems likely that we will hear about it soon after.  However, this conference call does not necessarily mean that this case, or even LEBOR, will be over soon.  Stay tuned to the Ohio Ag Law Blog for more case updates.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Monday, April 22nd, 2019

Disagreements over how to improve the health of Lake Erie have led to yet another federal lawsuit in Ohio.   This time the plaintiff is the Board of Lucas County Commissioners, who filed a lawsuit in federal court last Thursday against the U.S. EPA.  The lawsuit accuses the U.S. EPA of failing to enforce the federal Clean Water Act, which the county believes has led to an "alarming" decline in the water quality of western Lake Erie.

The Clean Water Act requires states to monitor and evaluate water quality and establish water quality criteria, and also to designate a water body as “impaired” if it does not meet the criteria.   Once a water body is on the impaired waters list, the state must create Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for the water body.  TMDLs determine the maximum amounts of each pollutant that can enter a water body and still allow the water to meet the established water quality criteria.  Plans for reducing a pollutant would be necessary if the pollutant exceeds the TMDLs.  The state’s efforts to establish the water quality criteria, designate impaired waters and develop TMDLs are subject to review and approval by the U.S. EPA, who must ensure that the states are taking adequate action pursuant to the Clean Water Act.

Lucas County alleges that the U.S. EPA has failed in its Clean Water Act obligations by allowing Ohio to refuse to prepare TMDLs for the western basin of Lake Erie.  Even after another court battle forced the designation of the western basin as “impaired,” the county explains, Ohio’s EPA declared the western basin to be a low priority for TMDL development and has not yet proposed either TMDLs or an alternative plan for addressing the basin’s impaired water status.   Lucas County argues that since Ohio has not established TMDLs for the impaired waters of Lake Erie, the U.S. EPA must step in and do so.

The county also contends that the lack of state and federal action on the impaired waters status of the western basin has forced Lucas County to expend significant resources to maintain and monitor Lake Erie water quality for its residents.  According to Lucas County, such actions and costs would be unnecessary or substantially reduced if the U.S. EPA had fulfilled its legal obligations to ensure the preparation of TMDLs for the western basin.

Agricultural pollution is an explicit concern in the county’s complaint.  The development of TMDLs for the western basin would focus needed attention and remedial measures on pollution from agricultural operations, Lucas County states.  The county asserts that TMDLs would establish a phosphorous cap for the western basin and methods of ensuring compliance with the cap, which would in turn address the harm and costs of continued harmful algal bloom problems in Lake Erie.

The remedy Lucas County requests is for the federal court to order the U.S. EPA to either prepare or order the Ohio EPA to prepare TMDLs for all harmful nutrients in the western basin, including phosphorous.  The county also asks the court to retain its jurisdiction over the case for continued monitoring to ensure the establishment of an effective basin-wide TMDL.  

This is not the first TMDL lawsuit over the western basin.  In early February of this year, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and the Toledo-based Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie filed a lawsuit that similarly alleges that the U.S. EPA has failed to require Ohio to establish TMDLs for the western basin, which is still ongoing.  See our summary of that case here.  The case followed an earlier and successful push by the ELPC to order Ohio to declare the western basin as impaired, which the state had refused to do previously.  We explain that history here.

The newest round of litigation again highlights differences in opinion on how to remedy Lake Erie’s phosphorous pollution problem.   Like the TMDL lawsuits, a successful effort by the Toledoans for Safe Water to enact the Lake Erie Bill of Rights was also predicated on claims that Ohio and the federal government aren’t taking sufficient action to protect Lake Erie.  Lucas County made it clear that it isn’t satisfied with the state of Ohio’s approach of providing funding to promote voluntary practices by farmers to reduce phosphorous pollution, despite stating that the county isn’t “declaring war on agriculture.”  In its press conference announcing the current lawsuit, the county explained that the state’s voluntary approach won’t provide the “sweeping reforms we need.”  On the other hand, the Ohio Farm Bureau has argued that the TMDL process for Lake Erie can take years longer and be less comprehensive than the voluntary practices farmers are pursuing.  Still others believe that more research will help us fully understand the phosphorous problem and identify solutions.

As battles continue over the best approach to improving Lake Erie’s water quality, maybe all could at least agree that litigation is costly, in many ways.  An alternative but perhaps more challenging path would be appreciation of the concerns on both sides of the issue and cultivation of collaborative solutions.  Let’s hope we can find that path.  In the meantime, we’ll keep you up to date on the continuing legal battles over water quality in Lake Erie.

Read the complaint in Board  of Lucas County Commissioners vs. U.S. EPA here.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, March 28th, 2019

The media storm that surrounded the controversial Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) has quieted, but the federal lawsuit over LEBOR has heated up.  Just a month ago, Toledo residents voted to approve LEBOR.  The measure establishes rights within the City’s charter for the Lake Erie Ecosystem to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve” as well as rights to self-government and a clean and healthy environment for the citizens of Toledo.  LEBOR states that corporations or governments that violate these rights can be liable for harm caused and also cannot use existing federal and state laws or permits in defense of the violations.   Drewes Farm Partnership filed a lawsuit in federal court the day after LEBOR passed.  The farm’s complaint asks a federal court to declare LEBOR unconstitutional on several grounds and also claims that LEBOR violates state laws.   Recent developments in the past week prompted us to provide this quick update on the lawsuit:

City of Toledo agrees to a preliminary injunction.  The court announced on March 18 that the City of Toledo agreed to the entry of a Preliminary Injunction Order.  Drewes Farm requested the injunction when it filed the lawsuit.  The court stated that the purpose of a preliminary injunction “is merely to preserve the relative positions of the parties until a trial on the merits can be held” and noted that the City of Toledo has not “commenced or initiated any action against Drewes Farms or others pursuant to LEBOR.”  Toledo therefore agreed to the injunction and to maintain its current position of not taking any action to enforce LEBOR. 

Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water ask to join the lawsuit.    Also on March 18, two attorneys filed a motion asking the court to allow the Lake Erie Ecosystem and the Toledoans for Safe Water to “intervene” in the case as defendants.  Federal rules allow a party to file a motion to intervene and become a party to ongoing litigation as either a matter of right or with permission of the court.  The attorneys argue that the parties should be allowed to intervene as of right because they have significant legal interests that will be impaired by the case and that the City of Toledo can’t adequately represent those interests.  They also ask the court to allow permissive intervention because the parties have a claim or defense that share a common question of law or fact with the main action.  The court has asked Drewes Farm and Toledo to file briefs in response to the motion to intervene. Note that the two attorneys representing the Lake Erie Ecosystem and the Toledoans for Safe Water have worked with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the organization that assisted with the petition initiative that resulted in the adoption of LEBOR. 

Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.  On the same day as filing a motion to intervene, the attorneys also filed a motion to dismiss the case on behalf of the Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water.  The motion argues that Drewes Farm does not have legal “standing” to bring the case, which is based upon federal constitutional law that states that a federal court cannot have jurisdiction over a case unless the plaintiff demonstrates that he or she has suffered concrete and particularized “injury in fact” that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct and that the requested remedies will redress the alleged injuries.  Lake Erie and the Toledoans for Safe Water argue that Drewes Farm has not stated a concrete injury or actual or imminent harm due to LEBOR and therefore cannot meet the standing requirement.

City of Toledo files its answer to the complaint.  Yesterday, the City of Toledo filed its answer to the complaint filed against it by Drewes Farm.  Toledo presents sixteen defenses to the farm’s allegations, which include a general denial of the complaint and other defenses based upon arguments that:  the farm does not have legal standing, has not stated a claim or stated actual or imminent harm and has based its harm on premature speculation; that the City itself is immune and has acted properly, in good faith, and as authorized or required by law to act; that the relief requested by the farm would violate the rights of the citizens of Toledo; that the farm has a duty to mitigate its damages; and that the farm failed to join necessary parties and has not stated a basis for the relief requested.   Toledo asks the court to dismiss the case and award all costs of the lawsuit to the City of Toledo.

What’s next? Now the parties must wait for the court to act on the motion to intervene, motion to dismiss, and/or the City of Toledo’s request to dismiss the case.  We’ll keep watching the case and will let you know when the court makes a ruling on any of these requests.

By: Evin Bachelor, Friday, March 15th, 2019

State lawmakers have been busy crafting new legislation since the 133rd General Assembly took shape in January.  As promised, here are some highlights and summaries of the pending bills that relate to agriculture in Ohio:

  • Senate Bill 57, titled “Decriminalize hemp and license hemp cultivation.”  The Ohio Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee held a second hearing about the bill on March 13th, and numerous farm organizations spoke in support of the bill.  As of now the language of the bill has not changed since we last discussed Ohio’s hemp bill in a blog post, but some changes could be made when the bill is sent out of the committee.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.
  • Senate Bill 2, titled “Create state watershed planning structure.”  The one sentence bill expresses the General Assembly’s intent “to create and fund a comprehensive statewide watershed planning structure to be implemented at the local soil and water conservation district level.”  It further expresses the intent “to provide authorization and conditions for the operation of watershed programs implemented by local soil and water conservation districts.”  Click HERE for more information about the bill.
  • House Bill 24, titled “Revise humane society law.”  The bill would make various changes to Ohio’s Humane Society Law, including changes to enforcement powers, appointment and removal procedures, training, and criminal law applicability.  One of the significant changes would expand to all animals the seizure and impoundment provisions that currently apply only to companion animals.  This change would allow an officer to seize and impound any animal that the officer has probable cause to believe is the subject of a violation of Ohio’s domestic animal law.  At the same time, the bill would remove certain provisions from current law that pertain to harm to people, thereby focusing the new law solely on the protection of animals.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.
  • House Bill 124, titled “Allow small livestock on residential property.”  Under this bill, counties and townships would no longer be allowed to restrict via zoning certain noncommercial agricultural activities on residential property conducted for an individual’s personal use and enjoyment.  Instead, owners of residential property that is not generally agricultural would be allowed to keep, harbor, breed, and maintain small livestock on their property.  Small livestock includes goats, chickens and similar fowl, rabbits, and similar small animals.  Roosters are explicitly excluded from this definition.  However, the owner would lose his or her rights to keep small livestock if the small livestock create a nuisance, are kept in a manner that causes noxious odors or unsanitary conditions, are kept in a building that is unsafe as defined under the statute, or if the number of animals exceeds a certain ratio of animals to acres as defined under the statute.  The ratio may be modified by the local jurisdiction to allow for more animals per acre.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.
  • House Bill 55, titled “Require oil and gas royalty statements.”  Owners of oil and gas wells would have to provide mandatory reports to holders of royalty interests under this bill.  Current law only requires disclosure of the information upon request, but this bill would make the disclosure mandatory.  The bill would expand the types of information that the reports must include, and allows the holder of royalty interests to sue to enforce the new rights.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.
  • House Bill 94, titled “Ban taking oil or natural gas from bed of Lake Erie.”  The Ohio Department of Natural Resources handles oil and gas permitting in Ohio, and this bill would bar the agency from issuing permits or making leases “to take or remove oil or natural gas from and under the bed of Lake Erie.”  Click HERE for more information about the bill.
  • House Bill 95, titled “Revise Oil and Gas Law about brine and well conversions.”  The bill would ban the use of brine in secondary oil and gas recovery operations.  It would also ban putting brine, crude oil, natural gas, and other fluids associated with oil and gas exploration in ground or surface waters, on the ground, or in the land.  This restriction would apply even if the fluid received treatment in a public water system or other treatment process.  Further, brine disposal permits would not be allowed to utilize underground injection or disposal on the land or in surface or ground water.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.
  • House Bill 100, titled “Revise requirements governing abandoned mineral rights.”  Ohio has a statute that governs when a surface owner can take the mineral rights held or claimed by another by operation of law, essentially because of the passage of time.  The bill would require a surface owner to attempt to give notice to a holder of mineral rights by personal service, certified mail, or if those are unsuccessful then by publication.  Currently, if a holder of mineral rights believes that his or her interest remains valid, he or she may file an affidavit that complies with Ohio Revised Code (ORC) § 5301.56(H)(1) in the county property records.  If the holder of mineral rights fails to file an affidavit, the surface owner may then file an affidavit under ORC § 5301.56(H)(2) that effectively vests the mineral rights in the surface owner.  The new law would allow the surface owner to challenge a holder of mineral rights’ ORC § 5301.56(H)(1) affidavit.  This process would require the surface owner to obtain a court determination that the affidavit is invalid.  Then the surface owner would be able to file the new ORC § 5301.56(H)(3) affidavit to obtain the mineral rights.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.

There are also some bills that could have some indirect implications in the agricultural and natural resources sectors.  These indirect effects make this next set of bills noteworthy, or at least interesting.

  • Senate Bill 1, titled “Reduce number of regulatory restrictions.”  The bill would require each state agency to count its total number of regulatory restrictions, and then reduce the number of restrictions based on that baseline by 30% by 2022.  Once an agency meets its reduction target, it would not be able to increase the number of regulatory restrictions without making additional cuts elsewhere.  The bill would target agency rules that require or prohibit specific acts.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.
  • Senate Bill 21, titled “Allow corporation to become benefit corporation.”  Much like the LLC merged the principles of a corporation and a partnership, the benefit corporation merges the principles of a corporation and a non-profit.  A benefit corporation must follow the formalities of a corporation, but the articles of incorporation can designate a social purpose for the business to pursue, such as promoting the environment through sustainable practices.  One of the unique traits of benefit corporations is that benefit corporations cannot be held liable for damages for failing to seek, achieve, or comply with their beneficial purpose, or even obtain a profit; however, certain individuals may seek a court ordered injunction to force the company to pursue those interests.  In a sense, the benefit corporation reduces the traditional fiduciary duties expected in general corporations.  The bill purports to maintain the traditional fiduciary duties, but by allowing a social purpose other than profit to guide decisions, the traditional fiduciary duties are in effect modified.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.
  • House Bill 33, titled “Establish animal abuse reporting requirements.”  Under the bill, veterinarians and social service professionals would have to report their knowledge of abuse, cruelty, or abandonment toward a companion animal.  Social service professionals would include licensed counselors, social workers, and marriage or family therapists acting in their professional capacity.  Companion animals include non-wild animals kept in a residential dwelling, along with any cats and dogs kept anywhere.  These individuals would be required to report the neglect to law enforcement, agents of the county humane society, dog wardens, or other animal control officers.  Further, dog wardens, deputy dog wardens, and animal control officers would become mandatory reporters of child abuse.  Lastly, the bill explains the information that must be reported, the timing, and the penalties for failure to comply.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.
  • House Bill 48, titled “Create local government road improvement fund.”  The bill proposes to deposit into a new local government road improvement fund some of the surplus funds generated when the state spends less than it appropriates in the general revenue fund.  Under current law, this surplus is split between the budget stabilization fund, also known as the “rainy day fund,” and the income tax reduction fund, which would redistribute remaining surplus to taxpayers.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.
  • House Bill 54, titled “Increase tax revenue allocated to the local government fund.”  The bill would increase the proportion of state tax revenue allocated to the Local Government Fund from 1.66% to 3.53%.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.
  • House Bill 74, titled “Prohibit leaving junk watercraft or motor uncovered on property.”  The bill would allow a sheriff, chief of police, highway patrol officer, or township trustee to send notice to a landowner to remove a junk vessel or outboard motor within 10 days.  The prohibition applies to junk vessels, including watercraft, and outboard motors that are three years or older, apparently inoperable, and with a fair market value of $1,500 or less.  Failure to cover, house, or remove the item in ten days could result in conviction of a misdemeanor.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.

As more bills are introduced, and as these bills move along, stay tuned to the Ag Law Blog for updates.

By: Evin Bachelor, Tuesday, March 12th, 2019

Written by Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

Toledo’s Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) has been in the headlines a lot lately, and certainly on the minds of farmers in the Lake Erie watershed.  So far, the Ag Law Blog has focused attention on what LEBOR is, why it was on the ballot, and what types of defenses agricultural producers can raise if sued.  Because voters approved the ballot measure, the focus now shifts to how LEBOR will be treated in the courts.

On February 26th, Toledo held a special election, with one of the ballot questions being whether to amend the City of Toledo’s charter to adopt LEBOR.  While less than 9 percent of Toledo’s registered voters cast a ballot, the majority of those who did voted in favor of amending the city’s charter to include LEBOR. 

On February 27th, the Drewes Farm Partnership filed a complaint and initiated a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Toledo.  Family owned and operated, this Wood County based grain farm operates wholly within the Lake Erie watershed.  Drewes Farm utilizes both manure and commercial fertilizers, and states in its complaint that it follows industry best practices, scientific recommendations, and all legal requirements such as keeping records and not applying fertilizer on snow covered ground.  Two of the family members obtained Fertilizer Applicator Certificates, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture certified the farm under its Ohio Agricultural Stewardship Verification Program.

The complaint specifically alleges violations of Drewes Farm’s rights under the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, and Due Process Clauses of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Further, the complaint argues that LEBOR exceeds the City of Toledo’s authority by intruding on state and federal powers by attempting to meddle with international relations, invalidate state and federal permits, invalidate state law, alter the rights of corporations, and create new causes of action in state courts.  Drewes Farm requests that the court 1) grant it a preliminary and permanent injunction to prevent LEBOR’s enforcement, 2) invalidate LEBOR, and 3) grant the plaintiff an award for costs and fees.

The following day, Drewes Farm filed a motion for a preliminary injunction.  Parties use preliminary injunctions as a way to enforce the status quo and prevent the other parties from acting in a way that would cause further harm.  If granted, the preliminary injunction would prevent the enforcement of LEBOR against the Drewes Farm Partnership during the course of the litigation.  At the end of the case, there would be a determination of whether Drewes Farm should receive a permanent injunction, which would prevent LEBOR from being enforced against it after the case has ended.

The party who brings the motion must argue and prove four elements in order for the court to grant the motion for a preliminary injunction:

First, that the movant has a likelihood of success on the merits, meaning that it is likely that the movant will win the underlying case.  Drewes Farm’s motion examines each of the grounds that it believes violates its constitutional rights and state and federal law.  Drewes Farm argues that it can win on each of the dozen grounds it examines, and that it need only show a likelihood of success on one ground to satisfy this element.

Second, that the movant could suffer irreparable harm without a preliminary injunction, meaning that without a preliminary injunction, the other party may take action to harm the movant in a way that it will not be able to recover.  Here, Drewes Farm cites court cases explaining that the loss of one’s constitutional rights for any amount of time constitutes irreparable harm, and that a likelihood of success also demonstrates irreparable harm.

Third, that the issuance of an injunction will not cause greater harm.  This element balances the previous element to see whether the injunction is fair.  Where the second element looks at the harm to the movant, the third element looks at whether a preliminary injunction will harm others.  Here, Drewes Farm argues that others will not be harmed by the granting of a preliminary injunction because it will merely allow the farm to continue operating as required under the law and its permits using best practices.  Further, Drewes Farm mentions that the other farms in the watershed will actually experience a benefit from the prevention of LEBOR’s enforcement.

Fourth, that the issuance of a preliminary injunction would serve the public interest.  Here, Drewes Farm cites additional court cases explaining that the enforcement of constitutional rights is inherently in the public interest.  Further, it argues that the State of Ohio holds its portion of Lake Erie in trust “for all Ohio citizens, not just those residing in a single municipality.”

If the court is satisfied that Drewes Farm has established each of the four elements, it may grant a preliminary injunction.

At this time, the City of Toledo has not filed any responses to the complaint or motion; however, procedural rules require it to respond in a timely manner.  Because it has not filed anything with the court, it is unclear how the City of Toledo intends to defend or respond.  However, since enforcement of LEBOR had not been commenced against the Drewes Farm Partnership, it is possible that Toledo will challenge the plaintiff’s standing to sue at the present time.

The case is cited in court records as Drewes Farm Partnership v. City of Toledo, Ohio, 3:19-cv-00343 (N.D. Ohio).  Stay tuned to the Ag Law Blog for updates about the case.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Sunday, February 24th, 2019

Whether producing crops, livestock, or other agricultural products, it can be challenging if not impossible for a farmer to completely prevent dust, odors, surface water runoff, noise, and other unintended impacts.   Ohio law recognizes these challenges as well as the value of agricultural production by extending legal protections to farmers.  The protections are “affirmative defenses” that can shield a farmer from liability if someone files a private civil lawsuit against the farmer because of the unintended impacts of farming.  A court will dismiss the lawsuit if the farmer successfully raises and proves an applicable affirmative legal defense. 

In our latest law bulletin, we summarize Ohio’s affirmative defenses that relate to production agriculture.  The laws afford legal protections based on the type of activity and the type of resulting harm.  For example, one offers protections to farmers who obtain fertilizer application certification training and operate in compliance with an approved nutrient management plan, while another offers nuisance lawsuit protection against neighbors who move to an agricultural area.  Each affirmative defense has different requirements a farmer must meet but a common thread among the laws is that a farmer must be a “good farmer” who is in compliance with the law and utilizing generally accepted agricultural practices.  It is important for farmers to understand these laws and know how the laws apply to a farm’s production activities.

To learn more about Ohio’s affirmative defenses for agricultural production activities, view our latest law bulletin HERE.

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