ATLANTA – Legislation aimed at discouraging nuisance lawsuits against farmers in Georgia filed by neighbors cleared a committee in the state House of Representatives Thursday on a voice vote.

The Freedom to Farm Act would amend a law the General Assembly enacted in the late 1980s governing nuisance suits against farm operations in areas zoned for agricultural use.

Additional protections are needed because nonfarmers and farmers are living closer to each other than ever before, Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella , chairman of the House Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee and the bill’s chief sponsor, told committee members.

“When the current law was passed, [farmers] did not have neighbors who did not farm,” he said. “Now, urban encroachment is happening all over Georgia.”

Under the bill, neighbors who object to noise, smells, dust or polluted water emanating from a farm operation would have up on one year to file a lawsuit.

The one-year statute of limitations would not apply to any “confined animal-feeding operation” such as a chicken house, or to a hog farm.

Supporters said the state’s policy makers need to do everything they can to protect farmland from lawsuits at a time when fewer and fewer Georgians are pursuing farming as a career while a growing population means ever-increasing demand for food.

“We can’t go back and reclaim some of this land if we lose it,” said Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas.

While no one spoke against the bill at Thursday’s hearing, opponents have argued the current law provides adequate protection for farmers from lawsuits while the Freedom to Farm Act would make it too difficult to bring a nuisance case.

“It opens the door for new, industrial-scale animal operations and other polluting agricultural facilities to move into pre-existing communities, create nuisances, and face zero consequences,” according to talking points released by the measure’s opponents.

But Dickey said his bill is to protect family farmers, not corporate agriculture.

“Ninety-eight percent of Georgia farms are family farms,” he said. “This bill is not about big farming but to keep our small family farms operating without fear of nuisance lawsuits.”

The bill now moves to the House Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.