It’s been a while since we’ve written about the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR)! As a refresher, LEBOR was passed in February in a special election as an amendment to Toledo’s city charter. LEBOR was meant to create new legal rights for Lake Erie, the Lake Erie ecosystem, and to give Toledo citizens the ability to sue to enforce those legal rights against a government or a corporation violating them. For a longer explanation on LEBOR, see our post here. Since then, lawsuits for and against LEBOR have been filed, and the state of Ohio has passed legislation concerning the language in LEBOR. Updates on those actions will be discussed below.
Update on the Drewes Farm lawsuit
The day after LEBOR passed, Drewes Farm Partnership initiated a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Western Division, against the city of Toledo. Our initial blog posts concerning this lawsuit are available here and here. In May, we discussed updates to the Drewes Farm lawsuit in yet another blog post. Since our last update, the Lake Erie Ecosystem and TSW’s motion to stay pending appeal and the appeal were both denied, meaning the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision to leave the ecosystem and TSW out of the lawsuit. As a result, the current parties to the lawsuit are plaintiffs Drewes Farm Partnership and the State of Ohio, as well as the defendant City of Toledo. In early June, both the Drewes Farm Partnership and the state of Ohio filed motions for judgement on the pleadings. The district court has not yet determined whether to grant the motions; the City of Toledo’s response to the motions is due on August 9, 2019. After the response is filed, the plaintiffs will have a chance to reply.
Toledo Citizens file lawsuit against State of Ohio
In the midst of the Drewes Farm lawsuit, yet another complaint has been filed concerning LEBOR. On June 27, 2019, three citizens of Toledo filed a complaint against the state of Ohio in the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas. In the complaint, the citizens, who all voted for LEBOR, asked the court to find that the state has failed to address pollution in Lake Erie, and due to its inaction, circumstances in the lake are getting worse, that LEBOR is enforceable under the Ohio Constitution and state law, and to issue an injunction to prevent the state from curtailing their rights under LEBOR. Currently, it appears as though no response has been filed by the state of Ohio. Perhaps the state wants to let recently passed legislation do the talking.
State budget bill includes language aiming to invalidate LEBOR, adds water quality initiative
Finally, the Ohio General Assembly has also gotten in on the LEBOR action. On July 18, 2019, Governor DeWine signed the General Assembly’s budget bill into law. Page 482 contains language that seems to be aimed at LEBOR and other environmental community rights initiatives. Most importantly, the bill states:
- Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate or bring an action in any court of common pleas.
- No person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any court of common pleas.
It will be interesting to see how courts handle lawsuits on behalf of ecosystems and nature after the passage of this budget law.
While the budget bill appears to take LEBOR and initiatives like it head-on, it also created a water quality initiative called “H2Ohio,” which includes a fund in the state treasury. The money in the H2Ohio fund will go toward water quality improvement projects, including projects to reduce phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment pollution from agricultural practices. With this initiative, the state seems to be offering an alternative way to protect its waters, including Lake Erie.
Work continues on sorting out the legality of LEBOR and the wider problem of Lake Erie pollution, and there appears to be no end in sight. Keep an eye on the Ohio Ag Law Blog for new developments on LEBOR lawsuits and the H2Ohio program!
It’s been a busy July in the ag law world, to say the least. The Ohio General Assembly officially passed the hemp bill and a budget, RMA adjusted its prevent plant restrictions, and we have seen more activity on LEBOR. With everything that is going on, it’s time for another ag law harvest. Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:
Ohio Department of Agriculture announces website for future hemp program. Just days after S.B. 57 took effect, the Ohio Department Agriculture (ODA) launched a new webpage declaring “Hemp Is Now Legal.” However, the webpage goes on to explain that hemp cultivation, processing, and research licenses, which are required to legally do those activities, are not yet available as the rules and regulations have not been developed. ODA says the goal is to have farmers licensed and able to start planting hemp by spring 2020. As for CBD, the webpage says that it is now legal to sell properly inspected CBD products in Ohio. Note the “properly inspected” caveat. ODA wants to test CBD products for safety and accurate labeling before the product is sold to Ohio consumers. If they have not already done so, those wanting to sell CBD products should contact ODA to have their product tested. You can view the new webpage HERE.
Judge says $2 billion damages award is too much in Roundup case. A California state judge recently reduced the punitive damages award granted to Alva and Alberta Pilliod from $2 billion to $69 million, and reduced their compensatory damages from $55 million to $17 million. All combined, the couple would still receive $86.7 million in damages. As we previously discussed, the couple successfully convinced a jury that the glyphosate in Roundup significantly contributed to causing their non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In reducing the awards, the judge explained that the punitive damages were excessive and unconstitutional because they exceeded the U.S. Supreme Court’s restrictions. However, the judge denied Bayer’s request to strike the punitive damages award outright.
U.S. EPA denies petition to ban use of cholrpyrifos pesticide. Back in 2007, environmental groups petitioned to have the U.S. EPA revoke tolerances and registrations for the insecticide chlorpyrifos, citing harmful effects to people and nature. Without getting into the merits of the allegations, the timeline and history of the U.S. EPA’s decision is fairly interesting. The U.S. EPA had not completed its review of the chemical by 2015, so the groups took the agency to court, where they received a court order compelling the U.S. EPA to make a decision. The agency issued a proposed rule at the end of 2015 that would have revoked the tolerances; however, the federal court said that the U.S. EPA had not completed a full review nor properly responded to the 2007 petition. Even though it made a decision, the court wanted to see more evidence of a full administrative review. By the time the agency had a chance to fully review the chemical’s effects, the Obama EPA had turned into the Trump EPA. In March 2017, the U.S. EPA issued a denial order regarding the petition, which essentially threw out the petition. The environmental groups submitted an objection shortly after the denial order. By July 2019, the U.S. EPA had a chance to think some more and issued a final order denying the objections. As it stands now, the agency has decided not to revoke tolerances or registrations for chlorpyrifos. To read the agency’s final order denying the objections, click HERE.
Animal Disease Traceability program to require RFID tagging for cattle and bison by 2023. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is looking to fully bring animal disease traceability into the digital world, at least for beef and dairy cattle and bison. By requiring radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, the service says that animal health officials would be able to locate specific animals within hours of learning about a disease outbreak, significantly less than with paper records. Starting at the end of 2019, the USDA will stop providing free metal tags, but would allow vendors to produce official metal tags until the end of 2020. At that time, only RFID tags may be used as official tags. Starting on January 1, 2023, RFID tags will be required for beef and dairy cattle and bison moving interstate. Animals previously tagged with metal ear tags will have to be retagged, but feeder cattle and animals moving directly to slaughter will be exempt. To learn more, view the USDA’s “Advancing Animal Disease Traceability” factsheet HERE.
Senators want to fund more ag and food inspectors at U.S. ports of entry. Citing the national interest to protect the nation’s food supply, four U.S. Senators have introduced a bill that would provide the U.S. Customs and Border Protection with additional funding over the next three years. In each of the three fiscal years, the funds would be used to hire, train, and assign 240 additional agriculture specialists, 200 new agriculture technicians who provide support to the agriculture specialists, and 20 new canine teams. The personnel would work at U.S. ports of entry, including seaports, land ports, and airports across the country. If passed, S.2107 would require the Comptroller General of the United States to brief congressional committees one year after the bill’s enactment on how well federal agencies are doing at coordinating their border inspection efforts and how the agriculture specialists are being trained. The bill comes months after U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized nearly a million pounds of Chinese illegally smuggled pork from China, where African swine fever has ravaged the country’s pork industry. For more information about the bill, click HERE.
Cannabis decriminalization bill introduced in Congress. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) has introduced H.R. 3884 with the aim to do four things: 1) decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, 2) remove cannabis from the federal controlled substances schedules, 3) provide resources and rehabilitation for certain people impacted by the war on drugs, and 4) expunge certain criminal convictions with a cannabis connection. The bill currently has 30 co-sponsors, including 29 Democrats and 1 Republican. None of Ohio’s members of Congress have signed on as a co-sponsor at this time. The bill follows the recent change in status for hemp, which found favor in the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills. However, that change in status was largely predicated on the argument that hemp is not marijuana, so it remains to be seen whether the political climate is ready to loosen restrictions on marijuana as well. For more information about the bill, click HERE.
The funny thing about a "budget bill" is that it’s not all about the budget. Many laws that are not related to the budget are created or revised within a budget bill. That’s the case with Ohio’s HB 166, the "budget bill" signed on August 18 by Governor Dewine. In the midst of the bill’s 2,602 pages are revisions to an important law for agricultural landowners—the “Right to Farm” Law.
Ohio’s Right to Farm Law, also referred to as the "Agricultural District Program," provides immunity from a civil nuisance claim made by those who move near an existing farm. To receive the immunity under the old law, the land must be enrolled as an “agricultural district” with the county auditor, agricultural activities have to be in place first, i.e., before the complaining party obtained its property interest, and the agricultural activities must not be in conflict with laws that apply to them or must be conducted according to generally accepted agricultural practices. The immunity comes in the form of an affirmative defense that a farmer can raise if sued for nuisance due to agricultural activities such as noise, odors, dust, and other potential interferences with neighbors. If the landowner can prove that the activities are covered by the Right to Farm law, the law requires dismissal of the nuisance lawsuit. For years, we’ve been encouraging farmers to enroll land in this program to protect themselves from those who move out near a farm and then complain that the farming activities are a nuisance.
The new revisions to the law in the budget bill change the requirements for the land and agricultural activities that can receive Right to Farm immunity. In addition to protecting agricultural activities on land that is enrolled with the county auditor as agricultural district land, the law will now also protect the following from nuisance claims:
- Agricultural activities on land devoted exclusively to agricultural use in accordance with section 5713.30 of the Revised Code, which is Ohio’s Current Agricultural Use Valuation Program (CAUV), and
- Agricultural activities conducted by a person pursuant to a lease agreement, written or otherwise.
These two provisions significantly expand the geographic scope of the Right to Farm law. A landowner may not have to take the step to actively enroll and re-enroll land in the agricultural district program in order to obtain Right to Farm immunity. Instead, the agricultural activities are automatically covered by the Right to Farm law if the land is enrolled in Ohio’s CAUV property tax reduction program or is under a lease agreement, presumably a farmland lease, whether that lease is in writing or is verbal. This means that any land in Ohio that is actively being used for commercial agricultural production will likely qualify for the Right to Farm law’s nuisance protection.
The budget bill also added new language to the Right to Farm law that clarifies that “agricultural activities” means “common agricultural practices.” The law specifically includes the following as “common agricultural practices:”
- The cultivation of crops or changing crop rotation;
- Raising of livestock or changing the species of livestock raised;
- Entering into and operating under a livestock contract;
- The storage and application of commercial fertilizer;
- The storage and application of manure;
- The storage and application of pesticides and other chemicals commonly used in agriculture;
- A change in corporate structure or ownership;
- An expansion, contraction, or change in operations;
- Any agricultural practice that is acceptable by local custom.
This new language answers a question that we’ve long heard from farmers: if I expand my farming operation or change it from the farming activities that I, my parents or grandparents have always done, will I still have Right to Farm protection? We couldn’t answer this question with assurance because the law is unclear about whether it would also protect such changes. Under the new law, the answer is clear: transitions to new or expanded agricultural activities will also receive Right to Farm immunity. The law also states that certain practices, such as storing and applying fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals and manure, are “common agricultural practices.”
The final change to the Right to Farm law concerns a provision that addresses farmers suing other farmers for nuisance. Under the old law, Right to Farm immunity does not apply if the plaintiff who brings the nuisance law suit is also involved in agricultural production. That is, farmers don’t receive Right to Farm protection from nuisance claims by other farmers. The new law removes this provision. Under the revised law, farmers will be able to raise the Right to Farm law as an affirmative defense if sued for nuisance by another agricultural producer.
Many lawmakers who were focused on understanding and negotiating the financial provisions in Ohio’s recent budget bill may have missed the inclusion of changes to our Right to Farm law in the bill. Even so, with the passage of the budget bill, the legislature significantly expanded the reach of the Right to Farm Law and agricultural activities in Ohio now have broad protections from nuisance lawsuits.
Find the changes to Ohio’s Right to Farm Law--Ohio Revised Code 929.04, on pages 308 and 309 of HB 177, which is available on this page.
Tags: Right to Farm law; nuisance; budget bill; LEBOR; Lake Erie Bill of Rights; affirmative defenses; immunity
The OSU Extension Farm Office team has returned from the National Farm Business Conference in Wisconsin. We gained some fresh perspective on events beyond Ohio’s borders, but are happy to be back in slightly warmer weather. Our colleagues from across the nation presented on a variety of farm management topics, and we had a chance to discuss some of our recent projects. We also toured a number of dairy and agritourism farms, and of course ate lots of cheese curds. The fresh perspective means that it is time for a fresh Ag Law Harvest.
Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:
OSU Extension Ag Law Team featured on Agronomy and Farm Management Podcast. Recently we had a chance to talk with OSU Extension Educators Amanda Douridas and Elizabeth Hawkins, who together moderate the bi-weekly Agronomy and Farm Management Podcast for OSU Extension. We discussed the status of Ohio’s hemp bill and what we expect to happen in the near future with hemp regulation and production. Then we provided an update on the Drewes Farm Partnership v. City of Toledo lawsuit, which grapples with the legality of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Click HERE to listen to the podcast, and look for episode 28.
Minnesota focuses new commercial nitrogen fertilizer regulations on drinking water quality. In an effort to protect public drinking water sources, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has chosen to regulate the commercial application of fertilizer. The state has long regulated the application of manure, but not commercial nitrogen. The regulations focus on two types of geographic areas: regions with vulnerable soil (coarse soils, karst geology, or shallow bedrock) and farms located in Drinking Water Supply Management Areas. These management areas are designated based upon nitrate levels found in the drinking water. Starting in 2020, the state will ban the application of commercial nitrogen in these areas during the fall months and on frozen ground. Farms in any of the 30 Drinking Water Supply Management Areas would have to follow best management practices to start, but if nitrate levels continue to exceed state limits, then the state may impose additional restrictions in an area to reduce nitrogen pollution. For more information on Minnesota’s Groundwater Protection Rule, click HERE.
Federal court puts a hold on Bud Light’s “100 percent less corn syrup” ads. If they missed seeing it live during the Super Bowl, most people in the agricultural industry have at least seen the recent Bud Light advertising campaign that claims the beer uses no corn syrup while its competitors do. Shortly after the initial release of the ad, MillerCoors sued Anheuser-Busch, which makes Bud Light. MillerCoors wants a permanent injunction that would stop Bud Light from continuing its corn syrup advertising campaign, arguing that the advertisements are false and misleading to consumers. The first step to a permanent injunction is often a preliminary injunction, which makes a party act or not act in a certain way only while the case is pending. The judge presiding over the lawsuit granted MillerCoors’ motion for a preliminary injunction in part. The judge ordered Anheuser-Busch to temporarily stop using ads mentioning corn syrup if those ads do not contain language explaining that Bud Light does not use corn syrup in the brewing process. The judge’s act does not ban the ad that premiered during the Super Bowl. Rather it only blocks ads released later that claim Bud Light uses 100 percent less corn syrup than competitors like MillerCoors. Click HERE to view the complaint, and HERE to view the judge’s order.
It’s (mostly) official: USDA’s ERS and NIFA are headed to Kansas City. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the USDA’s selection of the Kansas City, Missouri region as the new headquarters for the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The location changed caused a great deal of controversy as some viewed it as a political move. However, the USDA has maintained that relocation will save millions of dollars over the next few years and put the agencies closer to a number of other USDA offices in Kansas City, such as the Farm Service Agency’s Commodity Operations Office. The Secretary reduced some of the controversy by scrapping plans to place the agencies under the USDA’s Chief Economist, who is a political appointee. Before we call the move a done deal, we must note that Congress could stop the plans. The U.S. House of Representatives might block the move via a Department of Agriculture-FDA spending bill currently under consideration. Click HERE to read Secretary Perdue’s press release.
Bayer announces multi-billion dollar hunt for glyphosate replacement. Somewhat buried in a press release titled “Bayer raises the bar in transparency, sustainability and engagement,” Bayer recently announced a substantial investment in its weed management research. Over the next ten years, the company plans to spend 5 billion euros, or roughly 5.6 billion U.S. dollars, to develop weed control products as alternatives to glyphosate. The announcement comes at a time with thousands of plaintiffs across the United States have claimed that the widely-used glyphosate caused their cancer. As we have previously discussed in the Ag Law Blog, the first three juries have in total awarded plaintiffs billions of dollars in damages. Bayer continues to fight the allegations and defend its product, but the press release marks the first time that Bayer has publically announced a search for an alternative to glyphosate. It remains to be seen whether the press release could have an impact in the lawsuits, but Bayer will likely try to keep the press release out of the trials by using court rules of evidence.
Ohio House passes amusement ride safety bill. County fair season has officially kicked off in Ohio, and some state lawmakers want to make sure that amusement rides at those fairs are safe. House Bill 189 seeks to heighten Ohio’s amusement ride safety inspection standards and impose additional duties on amusement ride owners. The bill would require the Ohio Department of Agriculture to adopt ride classification rules that identify types of rides needing more comprehensive inspection, along with the minimum number of inspectors and number of inspections for each ride. Further, the bill would require amusement ride owners to keep a manual for each amusement ride, and make it available upon request of an inspector. Amusement ride owners would also have to keep records, including documents and photographs, of all major repairs along with all locations where the owner stored or operated each ride. The bill includes an emergency clause, which would allow it to take effect as soon as the Governor signs it. Lawmakers named the bill “Tyler’s Law” after the young man who died following an equipment breakdown at the Ohio State Fair in 2017. Click HERE for more information about the bill.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 lease. More 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.
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.
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.