Rhode Island's Right-to-Farm Summary

Legislators justified Rhode Island’s right-to-farm law as a tool to protect agricultural operations “affected by the random encroachment of urban land.”1 Since the law was enacted in 1982, the number of farm operations in the state has grown by 51 percent while the amount of land in farms has dropped by 4 percent.2 So what does the state’s RTF law do in practice?

Rhode Island’s RTF Law at a Glance

Rhode Island’s RTF law does not provide protection for farmland or prevent suburban sprawl. Rather, Rhode Island’s law, similar to RTF laws present in the other forty-nine states, protects certain types of agricultural operations from nuisance suits when they impact neighboring property, through things such as noise or pollution. For example, in 1986, pig farmer Louis Vinagro advocated the law, what he described as the “freedom of farming act.” He saw it as protecting his “Mount St. Smellin,” where he housed over a thousand hogs and composted their manure with waste from a nearby landfill.3

Originally, Rhode Island’s RTF law extended nuisance suit protections to agricultural operations defined as those encompassing commercial enterprises with a primary propose of horticulture, viticulture, floriculture, forestry, dairy farming, aquaculture, or the raising of livestock, fur-bearing animals, poultry, or bees.4 A 2004 amendment, however, expanded the definition of agricultural operations. Now, the director of the Department of Environmental Management in consultation with the chief of its Division of Agriculture can determine additional protected agricultural operations, uses, or activities.5 The 2004 amendment also declared mixed uses of farms and farmlands to be “valuable and viable means of contributing to the preservation of agriculture.”6 A later 2014 amendment then described mixed uses as inclusive of hayrides, crop mazes, classes, tours, and other special events.7

In 2018, a court considered whether a nonagricultural mixed use of farmland was a protected agricultural operation under the RTF law. The Rhode Island Supreme Court interpreted the inclusion of mixed uses in the RTF law as a statement of policy rather than an expansion of the legal definition of agricultural operations.8 The court thus held that hosting weddings for a fee was not a protected agricultural operation, as defined under the state’s RTF law. Because it was a nonagricultural activity, the operation remained subject to the town’s regulations and ordinances.

Conditions and Activities

Rhode Island’s RTF law stands out from those in other states because it protects agricultural operations only from public or private nuisance lawsuits that specifically aim to enjoin, or stop, certain nuisance activities.9 Unlike those in many other states, Rhode Island’s RTF law consequently does not protect any agricultural operation from nuisance suits that aim to recover monetary damages related to the use and enjoyment of one’s land or to harm in the form of a loss in property values. Likewise, lawsuits that aim to recover damages—like monetary compensation for impacts on health or awards that seek to punish an operation—can also proceed.

In addition, the RTF law’s protections apply to agricultural operations only under certain circumstances. First, the law protects operations from nuisance claims due to odor from livestock, manure, fertilizer, or feed, so long as the operations were using generally accepted farming procedures.10 There has been some controversy over the extent to which Rhode Island provides oversight pertaining to manure management.11 Second, the law protects against nuisance claims relating to noise from livestock or farm equipment used as part of generally accepted farming procedures. Third, it protects against nuisance claims pertaining to dust from plowing or cultivation. And last, it protects operations from nuisance claims involving the lawful use of pesticides, rodenticides, insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides.12

The RTF law makes clear that it applies only to protected “agricultural operations” and does not provide any protections to “nonagricultural” activities, uses, or operations, all of which remain subject to restrictions under applicable laws, regulations, and ordinances.13 For example, a Rhode Island court held that the RTF law cannot be used to shield the illegal growing of marijuana plants in a storage facility because such an activity was not a “traditional agricultural land use” as protected under the RTF law.14 In addition, the RTF law does not apply to any agricultural operation that is conducted in a negligent or malicious manner, which generally means a manner involving a desire or intent to harm.15

Local Governance

Rhode Island’s RTF law broadly restricts the ability of cities and towns to regulate agricultural operations that keep animals. Specifically, the law prohibits cities and towns from enforcing ordinances against agricultural operations that regulate and control the construction, location, maintenance, or removal of all places for keeping animals.16 The RTF law also prevents cities and towns from enforcing ordinances against agricultural operations that control the time and manner of removing manure or driving animals through highways. For example, even while flies and odors emanating from things like chicken manure make it difficult to go outside, towns have no jurisdiction over the matter.17

The RTF law also protects agricultural operations that want to place seasonal directional signs or displays on a state right-of-way.18 The Department of Transportation is prohibited from making any rules or regulations that prevent such signage, so long as the signage complies with local zoning laws and ordinances.

Rhode Island courts have addressed the tensions that can arise between local zoning regulations and agricultural operations. In one 2001 case, a town sought to enforce a zoning ordinance that would prohibit the owners of a turf farm from excavating land in order to create an irrigation pond for their farm. The turf farm’s neighbors complained to the town about excessive dust. The court, however, concluded that the town’s interpretation of its zoning ordinance directly conflicted with the farmers’ ability to continue farming. In the words of the court, because the state’s RTF law was “designed to prevent the creation of nuisances, [it] must be interpreted so as to not seriously infringe on ordinary farming operations within the town.”19 Also, the state’s real estate sales disclosure law requires that property sellers disclose if any farms within their municipality may be protected by the RTF law.20


Elsewhere in Rhode Island law (but not in the RTF law specifically), plaintiffs can be liable for court costs when an individual brings a nuisance claim against an agricultural operation in order to stop the alleged nuisance activities and a court finds that there was no reasonable basis for the claim.21

  • 1. R.I. Gen. Laws § 2-23-2 (1982).
  • 2. U.S. Department of Commerce, “Table 1. Farms, Land in Farms, and Land Use: 1982 and Earlier Census Years,” in 1982 Census of Agriculture, Volume 1: Geographic Area Series, Part 39: Rhode Island State and County Data, Chapter 1: State Data (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1984), https://agcensus.library.cornell.edu/wp-content/uploads/1982-Rhode_Island-CHAPTER_1_State_Data-121-Table-01.pdf; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Rhode Island,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022, https://www.nass.usda.gov/Quick_Stats/Ag_Overview/stateOverview.php?state=RHODE%20ISLAND.
  • 3. D. Morgan McVicar, “Johnston Pig Farmer Vows to Use Mega-Stink Bomb in His War with the DEM,” Providence Journal, August 31, 1986.
  • 4. R.I. Gen. Laws § 2-23-4 (1982).
  • 5. 2004 R.I. Pub. Laws 178 (S.B. 2166) and 2004 R.I. Pub. Laws 53 (H.B. 7383) (amending R.I. Gen. Laws § 2-23-4).
  • 6. 2004 R.I. Pub. Laws 178 (S.B. 2166) and 2004 R.I. Pub. Laws 53 (H.B. 7383) (amending R.I. Gen. Laws § 2-23-4).
  • 7. 2014 R.I. Pub. Laws 360 (S.B. 2319) and 2014 R.I. Pub. Laws 406 (H.B. 7234) (amending R.I. Gen. Laws § 2-23-4).
  • 8. Gerald P. Zarrella Tr. v. Town of Exeter, 176 A.3d 467 (R.I. 2018).
  • 9. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 2-23-5, 10-1-1 (2021). See also Pucci v. Algiere, 261 A.2d 1 (R.I. 1970).
  • 10. R.I. Gen. Laws § 2-23-5 (2021).
  • 11. Cynthia Drummond, “DEM Promises Tighter Controls after Flies Swarm,” Chariho Times (Wakefield, R.I.), July 16, 2020. For an example of laws relating to manure management for CAFOs, see 250 R.I. Code R. § 150-10-1(k) (2021). For an example of laws relating to the composting of animal manure, see 250 R.I. Code R. § 40-20-3 (2021).
  • 12. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 2-23-5 to 2-23-6 (2021).
  • 13. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 2-23-4 to 2-23-5 (2021).
  • 14. Baird Properties, LLC v. Town of Coventry, No. KC-2015-0313, 2015 WL 5177710 (R.I. Super. Ct. Aug. 31, 2015) (citing the legislative findings in R.I. Gen. Laws § 2-23-2).
  • 15. R.I. Gen. Laws § 2-23-6 (2021).
  • 16. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 2-23-5, 23-19.2-1 (2021).
  • 17. Chelsea Phua, “Making a Stink—Large Manure Pile Draws Flies, Complaints,” Providence Journal, August 13, 2004.
  • 18. R.I. Gen. Laws § 2-23-5 (2021).
  • 19. Town of N. Kingston v. Albert, 767 A.2d 659 (R.I. 2001).

    Various other Rhode Island laws interact with the RTF law in unique ways. For example, rules and regulations in place for the licensing and registration of arborists (those who specialize in the care of individual trees) do not apply to any activity that is protected under the RTF law, like forestry.250 R.I. Code R. § 70-00-1 (2021).

  • 20. R.I. Gen. Laws § 5-20.8-2 (2021).
  • 21. R.I. Gen. Laws § 10-1-6 (2021).