South Carolina's Right-to-Farm Summary

South Carolina legislators proposed the state’s right-to-farm law as a tool to “conserve, protect and encourage the development and improvement of its agricultural land for the production of food and other agricultural products.”1 However, since its RTF law first passed in 1980, the state has lost 28 percent of its farms and 25 percent of its acres of farmland.2 So what does South Carolina’s RTF law do in practice?

South Carolina’s RTF Law at a Glance

South Carolina’s RTF law provides no explicit protection for farmland. Rather South Carolina’s RTF law, like those present in the other forty-nine states, centers on protecting certain types of operations from nuisance suits when they impact neighboring property, for example through noise or pollution. When first passed in 1980, the state’s RTF law protected agricultural operations, defined as facilities used for commercial production of crops as well as livestock, poultry, and their products.3 In 1990, South Carolina dramatically expanded its definition of protected operations to include any land, building, structure, machinery, or equipment used for the commercial production or processing of crops, trees, and animals, as well as of livestock, poultry, honeybees, and their products.4 The law also protects the products of commercial aquaculture.

Conditions and Activities

Originally, South Carolina’s RTF law protected agricultural operations from nuisance suits when the conditions around their location changed, as long as they were in operation for over a year and were not a nuisance at the time they began.5 A 2002 amendment, however, removed the requirement that operations be up and running for at least one year to have protection from nuisance litigation.6 Now, the law states that an established agricultural operation or facility cannot be deemed a nuisance—either public (interfering with public rights generally) or private (interfering with individual property rights)—due to any changed conditions around them.7 Moreover, operations can expand and change their technology without affecting their established start date.8

The RTF law does not protect an agricultural operation or facility from being deemed a nuisance when the nuisance results from the negligent (failing to take proper care), improper, or illegal operation of the facility or operation.9 In addition, the RTF law does not prevent someone from recovering damages for any injuries or harm sustained due to the pollution of or changed conditions of stream water or the overflow of water onto their lands.10

Local Governance

A 2006 amendment to the state’s RTF law drastically reduced the ability of counties to regulate agricultural operations in a manner different from that outlined by state law.11 Prior to the amendment, county ordinances became null and void if they made any agricultural operation or facility a nuisance. However, counties could still enact moratoriums that banned new construction entirely on industrial agricultural operations.12 Now, however, local laws and ordinances are also null and void if they are not identical to state laws and regulations, including the licensing regulations of the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control.13 The legislature’s intention with the 2006 amendment was to prohibit counties from regulating agricultural operations and facilities any more than state-level law did.14

However, new swine operations, new slaughterhouse operations, and any agricultural operations located within the corporate limits of a city may still be subject to local regulations and ordinances.15 Counties also can determine whether an agricultural use is a permitted use for county zoning purposes. If an agricultural operation is a permitted use, the regulations of that operation must be identical to those of state law, or they will be null and void.16

In one case, a town sued the state Department of Health and Environmental Control for permitting the construction of eight caged layer houses.17 Specifically, the town argued that the vapors and fumes from the egg-washing facility and spray-field would impact residents and deny them the full enjoyment of their properties. The town also argued that the department failed to properly follow its own guidelines, adopt regulations, or recognize that the layer houses created a nuisance. The court used various aspects of the state’s RTF law to rule in favor of the poultry operation. First, the court noted that the layer houses were “state-of-the-art” and minimized dust and odor in a way that was compatible with the surrounding agricultural uses of land. The court also found that the poultry operation served the legislative aim of encouraging the development of agricultural facilities. Finally, the court interpreted the RTF law to limit findings of nuisance against agricultural operations to those situations where the nuisance is actual rather than potential. Because the court found that the layer operation presented “only a possibility for inappropriate discharge of dust and odor,” it determined that it was proper for the state to grant the permits.

Setback Law

In related law, South Carolina establishes setback distances for the permitting of agricultural animal facilities.18 The setbacks are minimum requirements, and if those minimum requirements are met, the RTF law says that the Department of Health and Environmental Control “may not require additional setback distances.”19 However, a separate regulation allows the department to increase the minimum setback distances “on a case-by-case” basis.20

These setbacks have been subject to litigation in court. In one case, David Coggins Broilers, Heath Coggins Broilers, and Jim Young. These broiler operators received state-issued agricultural permits to construct and operate poultry facilities.21 The proposed facilities would hold anywhere from 162,000 to 237,600 broilers, producing an estimated 988 to 1,449 tons of manure per year.

After receiving the state permits, neighboring landowners—but not residents—filed suit against the poultry operators and the state, objecting to the permits over concerns that the poultry houses would create offensive odors, harm their health and quality of life, and create a nuisance. In addition, the neighbors argued that the facilities needed federal National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits because their manure runoff would likely enter into the water.

Ultimately, the administrative law judge approved the permits to construct and operate, concluding that the poultry operations were not required to get National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits. In addition, although the judge acknowledged that the Department of Health and Environmental Control may increase setback distances on a case-by-case basis, the judge found that the operations had met South Carolina’s minimum setback requirements without any need for additional setbacks to address potential odor or air quality issues. The judge did, however, require that the permits be conditioned upon the poultry operators obtaining a stormwater permit—a permit that would require consideration of whether setbacks should be increased in order to ensure compliance with stormwater runoff requirements.

  • 1. S.C. Code § 46-45-10 (1980).
  • 2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Quick Stats Tool: June 1980 Survey, South Carolina, distributed by National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed January 6, 2021,; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: South Carolina,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022,
  • 3. S.C. Code § 46-45-20 (1980).
  • 4. 1990 S.C. Acts 442 (H.B. 4463) (amending S.C. Code § 46-45-20).
  • 5. S.C. Code § 46-45-30 (1980).
  • 6. 2001 S.C. Acts 340 (H.B. 4944) (adding S.C. Code § 46-45-70).
  • 7. S.C. Code § 46-45-70 (2021).
  • 8. S.C. Code § 46-45-40 (2021).
  • 9. S.C. Code § 46-45-70 (2021).
  • 10. S.C. Code § 46-45-50 (2021).
  • 11. See 2006 S.C. Acts 290 (S.B. 1205) (amending S.C. Code § 46-45-60).
  • 12. While moratoriums could be considered and were not banned explicitly in the RTF law, their capacity to be upheld in court at that time is unclear. See Tucker Lyon, “Poultry Farm Moratorium: Emotions Run High as Orangeburg County Council Votes 5–2 for Moratorium,” Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, S.C.), August 2, 2005.
  • 13. S.C. Code § 46-45-60 (2021).
  • 14. 2006 S.C. Acts 290 (S.B. 1205) (amending S.C. Code § 46-45-10).
  • 15. S.C. Code §§ 46-45-10, 46-45-60 (2021). Under this law a “new swine operation” is any porcine production operation that was not in existence on June 30, 2006, and a “new slaughterhouse operation” is an operation that was established after May 30, 2006, and that slaughters more than 200 million pounds of commercial farm animals. S.C. Code § 46-45-20 (2021).
  • 16. S.C. Code § 46-45-60 (2021).
  • 17. Town of Silverstreet v. S.C. Dep’t Health and Envtl. Control, No. 97-ALJ-07-0358-CC, 1998 WL 1473642 (S.C. Dept. Hlth. Env. for the Group CCFCE (Concerned Citizens for Cleaner Environment) v. S.C. Dep’t Health and Envtl. Control, No. 98-ALJ-07-0372-CC, 1998 WL 723921 (S.C. Admin. Law Ct. Sept. 29, 1998). Please note that since these are administrative cases, we did not include them in our national analysis of case law.
  • 18. S.C. Code § 46-45-80 (2021); S.C. Code Regs. 61-43 (2021).
  • 19. S.C. Code § 46-45-80 (2021).
  • 20. S.C. Code Regs. § 61-43 (2021).
  • 21. Blackmon v. S.C. Dep’t Health and Envtl. Control, No. 17-ALJ-07-0041-CC, 2017 WL 6275969 (S.C. Admin. Law Ct. Nov. 30, 2017).