HARRISBURG, Pa. -- State Attorney General Tom Corbett yesterday filed Commonwealth Court lawsuits challenging four municipal ordinances that he said illegally restrict farming operations.
The lawsuits were the first to be filed under the 2005 Agriculture Communities and Rural Environment law that authorized the attorney general to evaluate conflicts over local farm ordinances and to file suit on behalf of farmers if necessary.
The ACRE law, designed to provide new ways to settle the growing number of conflicts between homeowners and large-scale farms, also requires expanding livestock producers and manure-importing operations to meet more stringent water-quality rules and to reduce odor.
"Local governments have some regulatory power, but they do not have the power to violate state law, and they should not have the power to prevent farmers from earning an honest living," said Corbett, who is seeking to have the ordinances struck down.
Lawsuits were filed against Locust Township in Columbia County; Lower Oxford Township in Chester County; Richmond Township in Berks County; and four other Berks County townships -- Heidelberg, North Heidelberg, Robesonia and Womelsdorf -- that have a collective zoning ordinance.
The targeted ordinances are directed at regulating "intensive" or "commercial" agricultural operations involving livestock, poultry or mushroom-composting.
Lawyers who serve as solicitors to some of the townships said they would welcome guidance from the courts on how local governments can regulate large farming operations, but they insisted that they need that authority.
Richmond Township's ordinance has already withstood a farmer's challenge in Berks County court and is currently before the Commonwealth Court on appeal, said Solicitor Robert P. Grim.
"We have briefed the very same issues that the attorney general is suing us for," Grim said. "We think this (state lawsuit) is a waste of taxpayers' money."
Allen Shollenberger, the solicitor for Womelsdorf, and Todd Kerstetter, the solicitor for Locust Township, said effective zoning is a crucial tool to local government in balancing the interests of residents and farmers.
"They're saying that we can't use zoning to regulate these pig farms," Kerstetter said, "and if that's the case, then a pig farm could go in the middle of a residential development."