A case in Yamhill County Circuit Court in McMinnville, Oregon pits two farms — a vineyard and a potential commercial marijuana grower — against each other, implicating the scope of Oregon’s Right to Farm law. At issue in Mahesh v. Wagner is a proposal by the owner of nearly seven acres of farmland to grow marijuana next door to an established 580-acre vineyard and a 19-acre vineyard currently in development.
Yamhill County initially approved the marijuana farm, as well as a facility that could process more than 30,000 pounds of marijuana per year, but later withdrew approval for the processing facility. The adjacent vineyard owners filed a lawsuit alleging claims for trespass and nuisance because the marijuana farm will “generate foul-smelling particles that will become airborne and migrate by air” to the neighboring vineyards and “negatively impact the quality and suitability of grapes . . . including but not limited to the use of the grapes for wine.”
The Yamhill County Circuit Court denied the vineyard owners’ motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent development of the marijuana farm. Subsequently, the owners of the marijuana farm sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, relying in part of Oregon’s Right to Farm and Right to Forest Act. The court also denied that motion.
Oregon’s Right to Farm statute (ORS 30.936) provides that farming practices on lands zoned for farm use shall not give rise to any private right of action or claim for relief based on nuisance or trespass. This immunity, however, does not apply where the offending farming practice results in damage to commercial agricultural products.
The marijuana farmers contended they are immune from suit because Oregon courts have held that the “mere allegation” of a farming practice is sufficient to invoke immunity under the Right to Farm statute. The vineyard owners countered that the statute explicitly excludes claims based on damage to commercial agricultural products and their allegation of damage to current and future grape crops brings them within the scope of the exception. The vineyard owners also argued that the legislature never intended the statutory immunity to apply to disputes between farms, contending that the purpose of the statute is to protect agricultural lands from the expansion of residential and urban uses.
The Circuit Court agreed with the vineyard owners stating, “The Right to Farm Act does not provide such blanket immunity as to support dismissal of the complaint on its face.” The court, however, also noted that the immunity could be an affirmative defense at a later stage of the case, leaving the issue open for future proceedings after discovery and motion practice.
No Oregon appellate court decisions have considered the question of whether the Right to Farm Act applies to disputes between farmers and courts in neighboring states have come down both ways. The Washington Supreme Court interpreted that state’s statute as prohibiting such use, even though the Washington Right to Farm statute does not have the same explicit exemption as Oregon. The Washington Supreme Court held that the Washington statute is a narrow codification of the common law “coming to the nuisance” defense and that it does not “insulate agricultural enterprises from nuisance actions brought by an agricultural or other rural plaintiff, especially if the plaintiff occupied the land before the nuisance activity was established.” By contrast, a California court of appeals held that California’s Right to Farm statute applies broadly to a bar a nuisance action brought by one commercial agricultural entity against another commercial agricultural entity.
Because the issue remains unresolved in Oregon, it may take further litigation between these parties to bring the issue to appellate review. Even if the exception does permit the vineyard owners to proceed with their nuisance and trespass lawsuit, additional hurdles remain, including squaring the issues with the Oregon courts’ prior rulings that harm alone is not sufficient to find nuisance and that a balancing of interests is required.