As our readers can probably tell by now, there has been a lot happening in the agricultural law world over the past couple of weeks. From the Lake Erie Bill of Rights going on the ballot in Toledo to a new court decision on wedding barns, we’ve done our best to keep you in the know. While the legislative sessions in Congress and the Ohio General Assembly have started to shift into a higher gear, covering those bills will take up a lot of space, so be on the lookout for a legislative update soon.
For now, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:
Yep, more WOTUS. The U.S. EPA has announced new public hearings regarding its proposed revised definition of Waters of the United States. The hearing will be held on Wednesday, February 27th and Thursday, February 28th at the Reardon Convention Center in Kansas City, Kansas. For those who wish to provide input, but are unable to make the trip, the U.S. EPA will accept written comments from the public online at http://www.regulations.gov with the docket ID number: EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0149. The online comment portal will accept new submissions until April 14th. The text of the proposed rule, which the U.S. EPA released just in time for Valentine’s Day, is available on the online comment portal page as well as in the Federal Register. For more information about either attending the meeting or submitting a comment to the U.S. EPA, visit the Federal Register’s webpage here. For more information about WOTUS rulemaking, see our most recent WOTUS blog post, or visit the U.S. EPA’s webpage here.
Conservation funding for federal lands could be restored under U.S. Senate bill. In a sign of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate passed the National Resources Management Act by a vote of 92-8. If the House approves and it receives the President’s signature, the bill would modify a number laws addressing the management and conservation of federal lands, and would also restore funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which had expired last fall. This fund primarily supports the protection of federal public lands and waters, but it also promotes voluntary conservation on private lands and awards grants to states for the acquisition and development of parks and outdoor recreation sites. Also in the bill are two specific changes of note for Ohio. First, section 6004(c) of the bill would increase the cap on total spending for the Ohio & Erie National Heritage Canalway from $10 million to $20 million. Second, section 2502 of the bill would extend the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail from Illinois to Pennsylvania, which will include portions in Ohio. You can read the full text of the bill and see the official analyses on Congress’s website here.
FFA charter amendments approved by Congress and the President. Citing issues arising from the U.S. Department of Education’s not filling seats on the National FFA Board of Directors, the National FFA sought an amendment to its charter. Congress originally granted the charter in 1950, and any changes to the charter must be done so by an act of Congress. One of the major changes sought by National FFA was a reduction in the number of seats on the board of directors that must be appointed by the Department of Education. By not filling all of the seats on the Board of Directors, the National FFA faced difficulty making decisions because it often could not meet its quorum for meetings. The new amendments reduce the organization’s reliance on an appointment to its board of directors by the U.S. Department of Education, which increases the organization’s ability to self-govern. You can read the text of the bill on Congress’s website here, or visit the National FFA’s webpage on frequently asked questions about the charter revision here.
The PACT Act is back. The Prevention of Animal Cruelty and Torture Act has been reintroduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. The act would allow for significant fines and up to seven years in prison for those convicted of animal crushing, creating animal crushing videos, or distributing animal crushing videos. The bill defines crushing as “actual conduct in which one or more living non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians is purposely crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury.” However, the bill does contain exceptions for conduct that is related to “customary and normal veterinary, agricultural husbandry, or other animal management practice[s];” “the slaughter of animals for food;” legal hunting, trapping, and fishing activities; research; defense of a human; and euthanizing an animal. Many in the agriculture community have opposed the bill, arguing that it is duplicative in light of animal protections created by the states and that it risks courts and juries interpreting the language too broadly. At this time, the bill has only been introduced in the U.S. House and referred to the Judiciary Committee.
Nebraska wind farms sue to enforce contract and keep utility from flying off into the sunset. Three Nebraska windfarms in a power supply contract with the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) have filed suit to prevent the utility from backing out of the contract. The wind farms filed a complaint in federal court in Nebraska on January 30th, alleging that NPPD expressed its intention to terminate a power purchase agreement, and that doing so would be wrongful. The complaint explains NPPD’s position that the wind farms materially violated the contract by investing in other businesses and operations. The plaintiffs disagree that there was a breach, but say that even if there was, NPPD cannot terminate the contract because it knew of the transactions. The plaintiffs also note that NPPD has eminent domain power. They argue that by terminating the contract, NPPD knows that the wind farms will likely enter default with creditors. This could allow NPPD to acquire the rights of the wind farms through a foreclosure sale or eminent domain. To prevent NPPD from terminating the contract, the parties requested, and were granted, a temporary restraining order until March 1st that requires NPPD to honor the contract. The case is cited as Laredo Ridge Wind, LLC v. Nebraska Pub. Power Dist., No. 8:19-cv-45 (D. Neb.).
Wisconsin Supreme Court asked to decide scope of agency power to regulate agriculture. A Wisconsin court of appeals has certified two cases to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, asking the court to determine the extent of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s authority to regulate agriculture in order to protect groundwater. A certification represents a lower court seeking guidance on an issue that the lower court believes it is not in the best position to decide without knowing what the higher court thinks. These cases are important for Wisconsin because they pertain to a law passed in 2011 that restrained authority of state agencies to act beyond express grants of authority by the state legislature. Specifically, the cases ask whether the Wisconsin DNR can impose conditions on issuing a permit beyond the conditions stated in a statute. The affected parties in the cases range from dairy farms to manufacturers and from food processors to municipal water utilities. Environmental groups hope that state agencies may take a more expansive look at environmental impacts when reviewing permit applications. The two certification orders are available here and here.
Written by: Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow
Welcome to 2019 from all of us at the OSU Extension Agricultural and Resource Law Program! With a new Congress, a new Ohio General Assembly, and a new slate of leaders atop Ohio’s executive offices, we are expecting a flurry of activity in the new year. Our resolution this year is to keep you in the know about agricultural law news, and maybe find some time to exercise.
Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:
U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear state livestock standard lawsuits. In a previous blog post, we noted that California and Massachusetts had adopted laws that would require sellers of certain meats and eggs to follow heightened animal care standards in order to sell those products within California or Massachusetts. Thirteen states, led by Indiana, quickly sued Massachusetts to stop its law from taking effect. Missouri led another group of thirteen states in suing California.
Indiana and Missouri had attempted to have their cases brought directly before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court has “original jurisdiction” over claims between states. After the states filed their arguments with the Supreme Court, the justices asked the U.S. Solicitor General whether he believed these cases were appropriate for the Court’s original jurisdiction. The Solicitor General filed briefs in the Indiana v. Massachusetts and Missouri v. California maters, and suggested that the Supreme Court should not exercise original jurisdiction because, among other things, the states lack the proper standing to sue. Here, this argument essentially means that the resulting harm from enforcement of the statutes would not harm the states as states, but only some of their citizens, and that those citizens may still sue California or Massachusetts for their individualized harm.
The Supreme Court took the position of the Solicitor General and denied the requests of Indiana and Missouri to have the cases brought before the Court. Any further action will have to be taken through the lower courts. For more information about the Missouri v. California matter as argued to the Supreme Court, click here. For more information about the Indiana v. Massachusetts matter as argued to the Supreme Court, click here.
USDA not required to adopt Obama-era “Farmer Fair Practice Rules,” according to federal appeals court. In December 2016, the USDA published the Farmer Fair Practices Rules as an interim final rule, and published two amendments to its rules that deal with the Packers and Stockyards Act. The amendments addressed the ease of bringing a lawsuit for unfair and uncompetitive business practices under the Packers and Stockyards Act. The rule was set to take effect at the end of February 2017, although the amendments were only proposals that had not fully gone through the required notice and comment process. In early February 2017, citing the President’s regulatory freeze, and arguing that the rule would cause more litigation and confusion, the USDA postponed, and ultimately withdrew, the rule. The USDA also did not take action on the two proposed amendments. The Organization for Competitive Markets sued to stop the USDA from withdrawing the interim final rule, and to compel the USDA to promulgate the two amendments, arguing that the 2008 Farm Bill requires action by the USDA.
On December 21, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit denied the Organization for Competitive Markets’ request for review. The court explained that the USDA did not fail to fulfill its mandate, describing Congress’s language as ambiguous. Further, the court said that the USDA’s withdrawal of the interim final rule followed the proper notice and comment procedures. Ultimately the court believed that Congress has been monitoring this issue and if Congress wishes for a more specific action, then Congress should act. The court’s opinion in Organization for Competitive Markets v. USDA, No. 17-3723 (8th Cir. 2018) is available here.
Funding for National Weather Service and National Algal Bloom Program receives President’s signature. On Monday, January 7th, President Trump signed Senate Bill 2200, which passed during the previous Congress. The bill increases funding for the National Weather Service’s agriculture related weather monitoring and forecasting from $26.5 million in 2019 to $28.5 million by 2023. The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, the research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will see an increase in funding from $136.5 million in 2019 to $154 million by 2023. The bill also instructs NOAA to “plan the procurement of future data sources and satellite architectures,” essentially instructing NOAA to think about cost-effective ways to upgrade weather monitoring systems both on the ground and in space. The National Integrated Drought Information System will also see an increase in funding from $13.5 million this year to $14.5 million by 2023. The program is to use some of the funding to “develop a strategy for a national coordinated soil moisture monitoring network” within the next year. Finally, the bill also reauthorizes $20.5 million each year through 2023 for relief from hypoxia or harmful algal blooms “of national significance,” which the bill defines as “a hypoxia or harmful algal bloom event that has had or will likely have a significant detrimental environmental, economic, subsistence use, or public health impact on an affected state.” For the text of the act, visit Congress’s webpage here.
Ohio Case Law Update
- Ohio Power Citing Board cannot extend construction certificate for wind farm by simple motion, but must follow amendment process, according to the Ohio Supreme Court. Black Fork Wind Energy filed an application with the Ohio Power Citing Board (“the board”) to construct a wind farm in Crawford and Richland Counties in 2011, and the board approved the application in January 2012. Black Fork had five years, until January 2017, to begin construction on the project. The project was delayed due to a lawsuit challenging the project, and Black Fork sought an additional two years to begin construction. The board granted Black Fork’s motion without a full application to amend and investigation. The board argued that it regularly grants such extensions and that extensions do not amount to an “amendment” that would require an application because an extension is not “a proposed change to the facility.” The majority of the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed, and held that the board acted improperly. Because the commencement of construction was a term in the certificate, granting an extension amounts to an amendment in the certificate. As such, the board should not have acted on the request without requiring an application for amendment and investigation. The Court reversed the order and remanded the issue back for further proceedings. Justices Fischer and O’Donnell dissented, arguing that the Court should defer to the board in how it reads “amendment” under Ohio Revised Code § 4906.07(B). For the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion from In re application of Black Ford Wind Energy, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-5206, click here.
- Creditors must first seek payment of unpaid bills from estate of deceased spouse before attempting to collect from a surviving spouse, according to the Ohio Supreme Court. In Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, Mr. Robert Bell received care at a nursing home operated by Embassy Healthcare. Embassy sent a letter for collection to his wife, Mrs. Bell, six months and three days after he had passed away, but no estate for Mr. Bell had been opened. In Ohio, creditors have six months to request an estate administrator be appointed in order to collect a debt from an estate, but Embassy did not make such a request. Since it missed the six month statute of limitations, Embassy tried to seek collection from Mrs. Bell under Ohio’s “necessaries” law, as provided in Ohio Revised Code § 3103.03. This law requires spouses to support their spouse with money, property, or labor if their spouse cannot do so on their own; however, the Ohio Supreme Court has said that a person is responsible for their own debts first, and that under this statute their spouse will only be liable if that person cannot pay for their debts. In this case, the Ohio Supreme Court said that Embassy had to seek payment from Mr. Bell’s estate before it could require payment from his spouse. Since the statute of limitations had run to bring a claim against Mr. Bell’s estate, Embassy would be unable to demonstrate that Mr. Bell’s estate could not cover his personal debts. Therefore, Embassy would not be able to prove an essential requirement of Ohio’s necessaries law, and cannot recover from his spouse. For the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion in Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4912, click here.
- Trial court may determine width of easement as a question of fact, and will not be reversed by appellate court unless the evidence shows it clearly lost its way, according to Ohio Court of Appeals for the 7th District. A property owner signed an express easement to a neighbor so that the neighbor could cross the property owner’s land to access the public road. The written easement did not specify the width of the easement, but the neighbor cleared a path approximately 10 feet wide. The property owner eventually sold the property, and the new owner laid gravel on the path from the public road to their garage, and the neighbor extended the gravel all the way to his own property. Disputes later arose regarding the easement, and the neighbor sued the new property owners for breach of easement, and sought a declaration that the easement was thirty feet wide. Ohio case law allows trial courts to establish the dimensions of an easement if the writing does not specify any dimensions if the trial court examines: 1) the language of the granting document, 2) the context of the transaction, and 3) the purpose of the easement. The trial court found the easement to be ten feet wide. The neighbor appealed, but the Seventh District found the trial court’s decision to be reasonable given the evidence and Ohio law. Since the width of an easement is a question of fact, an appellate court will not reverse the trial court absent evidence that the trial court clearly lost its way given the weight of the evidence. For the Seventh Districts’ opinion in Cliffs and Creek, LLC v. Swallie, 2018-Ohio-5410 (7th Dist.), click here.
Bill makes wind and solar in Ohio competitive with neighboring states
Passed by both chambers of the Ohio legislature early morning on Friday, June 4, S.B. 232 provides tax exemptions for certain sources of new power generation. The bill was sponsored by State Senator Chris Widener and enjoyed bipartisan support. A press release from the Governor’s office makes clear he intends to sign it into law as soon as he receives it.
The new law will eliminate both the tangible personal property tax and the real property tax on new advanced energy projects. Qualified energy sources include wind, solar, and all other renewable energy resources as defined in Ohio Revised Code Section 4928, in addition to clean coal, nuclear energy, and the cogeneration of electricity from waste heat sources. To qualify, new projects involving wind, solar and other renewables must be under construction by January 1, 2012 and in service by January 1, 2013. All other qualified energy sources must be under construction by 2017.
One impetus for this change in tax treatment is that the current tangible tax rate energy companies pay is not competitive with other states. In Ohio, the tax rate for wind facilities stands at approximately $40,000 per megawatt, while solar is approximately $100,000 per megawatt. This compares to a range of $3,000 to $9,000 per megawatt in neighboring states.
The Ohio Department of Development will certify the exemption and base new payment rates (payment in lieu of taxes) on the number of Ohioans employed in the construction and installation of a qualified facility. Energy companies will have to comply with several other requirements including road repair, first responder training, and the establishment of university partnerships to promote the education, training and curriculum development of renewable energy industries.
The new rates will be as follows:
- Solar - $7,000 per MW
All other facilities:
- $6,000 per MW when 75% or more Ohio-domiciled employees are employed during construction and installation.
- $7,000 per MW when 60% or more Ohio-domiciled employees are employed during construction and installation.
- $8,000 per MW when 50% or more Ohio-domiciled employees are employed during construction and installation.
The bill also addresses Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) property and provides that the installation of an energy facility will not cause the remaining portion of a CAUV tract to be ineligible for CAUV.
The new law may signify the beginning of wind development in Ohio’s rural communities. Three wind projects have already received an Ohio Power Siting Board certificate and may be the first projects situated to apply for the new tax exemptions. Information regarding the three approved wind projects and four pending projects can be found on the Ohio Power Siting Board website.
Full text of S.B. 232 is available here.