INDIANAPOLIS – Once upon a time, individual property rights were the bedrock of the American fairy tale, the manifest destiny dream that shaped our DNA. Like the right to bear arms, controlling your own property was sacred and inalienable, especially in the GOP pantheon.

What’s changed? A lot. It’s strange that Republicans have managed to attract voters of any kind with their new sacred principle, industrial rights above all.

If you’ve ever taken the back roads of, say, Dubois or Newton counties, you’ve probably smelled, if not seen, a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). These are the sprawling complexes that churn out Indiana’s 20.5 million turkeys, 4.2 million hogs and 187,000 dairy cows. These are the mechanized factories that make Indiana first in the nation in commercial duck production, second in total eggs produced, fourth in turkeys raised, and fifth in hog production – as the Indiana Department of Agriculture claims with pride.

But living near a CAFO kills any romance of rural life. Forget the golden sun rays, red barns and freedom from urban tyranny. Prepare for a stench that will wreck your property values in no time flat. But now, legal battles and combative bills out of the General Assembly are making it practically impossible for individual families and even entire towns to co-exist with industrial animal producers. 

Twin bills, SB411 (from Sens. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute and Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville), and HB1380 (from Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Covington), place a formidable burden of proof on anyone claiming that a CAFO’s operations is harming his/her property or quality of life. The bill says that if a CAFO has a permit, it’s as good as a legal shield. While permits regulate manure management and water contamination – no doubt lightly, since this is Indiana – permits don’t at all regulate odor, a.k.a. air quality standards. These two bills remove an entire category of claim, known as stigma damages, or stink objections. 

Insert joke here: In Indiana, we don’t just think our waste doesn’t stink; we legislate it. 

But the matters of the right to live vs. the right to farm are far from funny. Industrial rights don’t just run roughshod over individuals. Another bill ensures that towns can be punished for trying to exercise control over quality of place. HB1573, authored by Rep. Jeff Ellington (R-Orleans), would prohibit local governments from using their zoning and planning authority to ban factory farms and logging operations from being built too near municipal boundaries. Fare thee well, home rule. Hello, industrial rights.

Much of the rancor here comes from a long-simmering Indiana court case that made it to the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court. A Hendricks County couple living next to a CAFO were deemed to have no just claim against the damage the CAFO was doing to their health – only since the couple chose to begin using their own land as residential rather than agricultural. Individual property rights? 

Shrug.

This is because Indiana already has one of the stiffest “right to farm acts” (RTFA) in the nation. Other states apparently call often to find out how this act passed constitutional muster in the first place, and how they can shove it through their legislatures.

The RTFA says: As long as a CAFO complies with regulatory requirements, the decision to build a CAFO on vacant cropland next to existing homes cannot be considered negligent conduct under the RTFA, no matter how unreasonable, extreme, and knowingly harmful. Amending the Right to Farm Act so that it doesn’t strip property rights is the obvious solution. As it stands, there are no limits to the number of animals or amount of waste CAFOs can generate, and they’re allowed to be as close as 100 feet from churches and schools regardless of the amount of waste and emissions they pump out.

There is one lonely pro-property rights bill in the IGA meant to counteract the avalanche of industrial rights bills. Rep. Thomas Saunders (R-Lewisville) has joined Rep. Sue Errington (D-Muncie) in co-authoring HB1472. It says that a CAFO owner can be sued for failing to use reasonable care in siting, building or operating a CAFO.

The push for industrial rights at the Indiana Statehouse begs the questions: Is the only motivation for being a lawmaker the opportunity to advantage Big Ag in exchange for campaign cash? How hard, and how risky, would it really be to legislate a fair balance between the thriving of Indiana’s major industries and the rights of citizen property owners to live in peace? And when will voters awaken? 

A consultant and grant writer, Laker is principal of Laker Verbal LLC. She is the former director of communications at Indiana Forest Alliance and hosts a movie review show, Flick Fix, on WQRT 99.1 FM.