Donna Blanton lived in her Oglethorpe County home for nearly 20 years when a farmer bought land near her property and began dumping so-called soil amendments on the property.

She said she doesn’t mind the smell of manure. Having lived all her life in rural Oglethorpe County near Athens, she knows how farms can smell.

Not this stuff; a mixture of wastewater from chicken processing plants, bakeries and other sources.

“This product stinks. It stinks of rotting meat,” she said.

Blanton said she couldn’t enjoy being outside anymore and she would sprint from her car to her front door. But that didn’t quite solve it because the smell got into the house and the car as well.

“You couldn’t go out and mow the grass,” she said. “We would put up a flypaper bag. And we could fill a whole bag in a matter of hours.”

She also worried that her well water would be contaminated.

Eventually, Blanton and some of her neighbors filed a lawsuit.

That’s an option, but it could become more difficult if a law is passed that is under scrutiny in the state legislature.

Georgia lawmakers are considering a bill that supporters say is important to agriculture, the state’s largest industry. The proposed law, HB 1150, limits when someone can sue a farmer for creating nuisance.

Critics argue that the proposal threatens private property rights and opens the door to polluting industries.

Agricultural industry associations are in favor of the measure

At a legislative hearing Tuesday morning, Republican State Assemblyman Robert Dickey, a Musella peach farmer, said the bill he is sponsoring is about protecting family farms.

“As a farmer, I worry a lot out there. I worry about the weather; I worry about rain, drought. I’m worried about the market prices. I’m worried about work,” he said. “Don’t let farmers worry about being sued left and right for doing what they’ve always done.”

Dickey said his concern is that development spills over to farms, for example if a subdivision goes in and the people who live there don’t like the smell of manure.

Representatives from agricultural industry groups came out to express their support for the meeting. The Georgia Poultry Federation and the Georgia Agribusiness Council were there.

Alex Bradford of the Georgia Farm Bureau said the bill is a big deal for the farmers he represents.

“Agriculture currently requires a lot of investment, which has increased significantly,” he said. “There are many external changes in our rural areas that lead to many misunderstandings about what is going on on farms.”

“Our current Right-to-Farm law is really, really strong”

But Georgia already has a law that addresses these issues. If there was a farm in Georgia first, someone can’t move in nearby and then complain about the dust or the smells.

“Our current right-to-farm law is really, really strong,” April Lipscomb, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said at the hearing. “I’m not aware of a single farm in the state of Georgia that has been closed due to harassment.”

She said the proposed law could allow large animal farms, with thousands of animals and all the waste they generate, to move next to existing farms and homes. If they don’t complain within a year, these neighbors wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

“This bill says we value emerging industrial-scale livestock farms more than Georgians’ longstanding private property rights,” Lipscomb said.

Charlotte Swancy, a Gordon County farmer, said at the hearing that she prefers the existing law to the proposed law.

“We want to be good stewards of the country. And for the most part, especially in Gordon County, that’s what happened,” she said. “But in our district there was a proposal to introduce a business with 150 chicken coops. And under the current bill, we still have protections to deal with something like that.”

In Oglethorpe County, Blanton said it was found that the farmer near her home was not following regulations.

Supporters of the new bill say it would not protect bad actors like him or change existing environmental laws.

“It protects a farm that’s functioning properly,” Georgia Agribusiness Council’s Will Bentley said at the hearing. “I’m a farmer too. So it is extremely important for me and my family to be a steward of land, air and water and the things that go into farming and to steward this land.”

Still, Blanton said the proposed law appears to be a problem for her because it took her two years to find out what was going on near her home and to try to get state and local officials for help before doing so she filed the lawsuit. That’s time people wouldn’t have if the law passed.

“If they only give you a year, I guarantee your average person won’t be able to figure out what’s going on,” she said.

She said she finally decided to sell her house and move, although that wasn’t easy either because people were withdrawing their offers.

Proponents stress that this bill will secure a future for Georgia farms.

A similar law, proposed in 2019, was not passed.