Utah’s Right-to-Farm Summary

Legislators introduced a right-to-farm law in Utah as a tool to preserve agricultural land.1 Since legislators passed additional RTF-related statutes between 1994 and 1995,2 the number of farm operations has increased by 19 percent, while the state’s land in farms has dropped by over 6 percent.3 So what does this legislation do in practice?

Utah’s RTF Law at a Glance

Utah’s RTF statutes provide nuisance protections for agricultural and, notably, industrial and mining areas.4 Similar to those in the other forty-nine states, Utah’s RTF-related laws protect certain types of agricultural operations within these areas from nuisance suits when they impact neighboring property, for example through noise or other pollution. Utah has enacted and amended a variety of different codes—criminal, judicial, agricultural, and county—to give agricultural operations exclusive privileges in the context of nuisance suits.5 Agricultural operations are broadly defined to include activities involved in the commercial production of crops, orchards, livestock, poultry, aquaculture, livestock products, or poultry products, as well as the facilities used to produce those things.6 The statutes provide different details for the operations and activities protected in mining and industrial areas.

Conditions and Activities

In 2019, amendments created three conditions that those who seek to sue agriculture operations must meet: (1) the plaintiff must be the legal possessor of the property that is alleged to be affected by the nuisance; (2) the alleged land or buildings affected must exist less than one-half mile away from the source of the nuisance; or (3) the plaintiff must file the lawsuit less than one year after the establishment of the agricultural operation or any fundamental change to that operation.7 That same year, amendments also created a series of substantial exceptions to fundamental changes.8 Importantly, a “fundamental change” does not include a change in ownership or size, the use of new technologies, a change in the type of agricultural product being produced, an interruption in farming that lasts three years or less, or participation in a government-sponsored agricultural program.9 The law presumes that an operation is using sound agricultural practices if it is following federal, state, and local laws and regulations, which include zoning ordinances.10

The 2019 amendments also introduced a sweepingly broad summary of nuisances that agricultural operations were not liable for, including “anything that is injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.”11 This defense becomes a complete defense for agricultural operations that are located in an agricultural protection area, which are designated by county commissioners.12 “Complete defense” means that even if a plaintiff makes a variety of charges against an agricultural operation, all of them can be dismissed at the same time and not be considered separately.

Local Governance

Agricultural protection areas, as designated by county commissioners, provide agricultural entities restriction-free operation for up to twenty years.13 However, even operations outside of such protected areas are shielded from nuisance suits. The 2019 amendments exempt agricultural operations from any ordinance of a political subdivision that would make them a nuisance as long as they are conducted in a “normal and ordinary course” of agricultural operations or use sound agricultural practices.14 Sound agricultural practices are considered to be those that conform with federal, state, and local laws and regulations. However, some state and federal environmental rules and regulations exempt agricultural operations from standards required of other industries.15 If the activity or operation impacts public health or safety, these protections do not apply.16

Other Important Aspects

In any nuisance lawsuit against an agricultural operation, the court must award costs and attorney fees to the agricultural operation if it is not found to be a nuisance or if the nuisance claim was either frivolous or malicious.17 If, however, an agricultural operation asserts a defense against a nuisance claim that is both frivolous and malicious and the court finds the operation did commit a nuisance, the court must award costs and attorney fees to the plaintiff.

In addition, Utah’s RTF laws require that the owner of any new subdivision located within 300 feet of an agriculture protection area provide notice on the plat provided to the county recorder “that the property is located in the vicinity of an established agriculture protection area in which normal agricultural uses and activities have been afforded the highest priority use status.”18 The notice must also state that the use and enjoyment of the property is conditioned upon the user’s acceptance of any annoyance or inconvenience that may result from the agricultural uses and activities within the protected area.

  • 1. Senator Leonard Blackham introduced S.B. 227 as a bill “for preserving agricultural land for the ability to be self-reliant.” See Brent Israelsen, “Proposal Would Protect Prime Farming Zones,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City), February 18, 1994.
  • 2. For the relevant legislation, see 1994 Utah Laws 58 (S.B. 227) (enacting, in relevant part, Utah Code §§ 17-41-402, 17-41-403, and 17-41-404); and 1995 Utah Laws 73 (S.B. 149) (repealing and reenacting what was then Utah Code § 78-38-7).
  • 3. U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Quick Stats Tool: June 1994 Survey, Utah, distributed by National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 16, 2020, https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/results/E3CFFC02-6E39-3D56-AAC8-7F591A7442D6; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Utah,” 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=UTAH.
  • 4. See, e.g., Utah Code § 17-41-403 (2021): “(1) A political subdivision shall ensure that any of the political subdivision’s laws or ordinances that define or prohibit a public nuisance exclude from the definition or prohibition: (a) for an agriculture protection area, any agricultural activity or operation within an agriculture protection area conducted using sound agricultural practices unless that activity or operation bears a direct relationship to public health or safety; (b) for an industrial protection area, any industrial use of the land within the industrial protection area that is consistent with sound practices applicable to the industrial use, unless that use bears a direct relationship to public health or safety.”
  • 5. See supra note 2. See also, e.g., 2019 Utah Laws 81 (S.B. 93) (enacting the Agricultural Operations Nuisances Act, Utah Code § 4-44-101 et seq.); 2019 Utah Laws 81 (S.B. 93) (amending, in relevant part, Utah Code §§ 17-41-403, 76-10-803); and “Legislature Passes Record Number of Bills,” Deseret News, March 2, 1995.
  • 6. Utah Code § 4-44-102 (2021).
  • 7. 2019 Utah Laws 81 (S.B. 93) (amending, in relevant part, Utah Code § 4-44-201(1)).
  • 8. 2019 Utah Laws 81 (S.B. 93) (amending, in relevant part, Utah Code § 4-44-102(2)).
  • 9. 2019 Utah Laws 81 (S.B. 93) (amending, in relevant part, Utah Code § 4-44-102(2)).
  • 10. 2019 Utah Laws 81 (S.B. 93) (amending, in relevant part, Utah Code § 4-44-202).
  • 11. 2019 Utah Laws 81 (S.B. 93) (amending, in relevant part, Utah Code § 4-44-102(3)).
  • 12. 2019 Utah Laws 81 (S.B. 93) (amending, in relevant part, Utah Code § 17-41-403, which references Utah Code § 4-44-201).
  • 13. Jeff Vice, “Protection Status Hatched for Egg Farm,” Deseret News, March 6, 1996.
  • 14. 2019 Utah Laws 81 (S.B. 93) (amending, in relevant part, Utah Code § 4-44-202(3)).
  • 15. Cordon M. Smart, “The ‘Right to Commit Nuisance’ in North Carolina: A Historical Analysis of the Right-to-Farm Act,” North Carolina Law Review 94, no. 6 (2016): 2097–154; Danielle Diamond, Loka Ashwood, Allen Franco, Aimee Imlay, Lindsay Kuehn, and Crystal Boutwell, “Farm Fiction: Agricultural Exceptionalism, Environmental Injustice and U.S. Right-to-Farm Law,” Environmental Law Reporter 52 (Sept. 2022): 10727-10748.
  • 16. Utah Code § 17-41-403(1)(a) (2021).
  • 17. Utah Code § 4-44-201(3) (2021).
  • 18. Utah Code § 17-41-403(4)(a) (2021).