When does the “right to farm” become the “right to harm”?

On Tuesday the Florida House of Representatives’ Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee voted 14-4 to advance HB 1601, which ostensibly seeks to boost agri-tourism and protect farmers from newcomers who want to curtail farm operations.

But we believe the effect of the bill will be to disenfranchise the already disenfranchised, like those who live near sugar fields and find themselves hacking and wheezing when smoke from the burning cane wafts in their direction.

The bill curtails their ability to sue, requiring they live within 1/2 mile of the farm in question to file a nuisance action. It also raises the burden of proof, limits damages and requires plaintiffs who lose in court to pay the winning side’s costs.

It’s nefarious. But several legislators on the committee, including Rep. Randy Fine and Rep. Toby Overdorf, tried hard to pretend it’s merely designed to protect poor beleaguered farmers – like, say, U.S. Sugar – from being overwhelmed by unjust complaints.

Fine sparred with Rep. Omari Hardy, who sponsored a series of amendments (all of which failed) that sought to strip the bill of its many bad elements. At one point Fine asked Hardy, in effect: Why won’t you just take my word this is just about newcomers? When Hardy demurred, Fine dropped that line of “reasoning” and suggested those complaining of respiratory problems due to the burning sugar fields might be making it all up: If they’ve lived in the region for so long, he asked, why are they just bringing it up now?

Overdorf acted as the bill’s protector, rising to urge colleagues to vote against each of Hardy’s amendments and wondering why regulation via the EPA or Florida DEP wasn’t enough. To this point, Overdorf would be wise to take a hard look at his own district, where state and federal regulation somehow hasn’t prevented myriad environmental problems, like blue-green algae.

Friends of the Everglades has major reservations about this bill, beyond the obvious sugarcane burning threat; It may also shield farming operations from legal action related to water quality. But there’s still time to oppose it: The bill has one more stop, the Judiciary Committee, before it moves to the House Floor. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 88, passed March 17.

This is not a partisan issue. It’s about the rights of Floridians to protect themselves, and our ecosystems, from polluters.

Make your voice heard: Contact the House Judiciary Committee at (850) 717-4850 or committee chairman Rep. Daniel Perez at (850) 717-5116 or (305) 442-6800. For more information on sugarcane burning, watch our “Clean Water Conversation” on sugarcane burning on Facebook.