Wisc. Farm Groups Protest Cranberry Run-off Suit

Aug. 27, 2004

Farm organizations are objecting to a lawsuit filed by Wisconsin's Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, saying it threatens the Right to Farm Law.

Passed in 1982 and amended in 1995, the law limits "nuisance" lawsuits due to the normal results of farm activities – such as odors, noise, dust and flies – if the activity was conducted before those complaining began the use of their property and if the use does not present a substantial threat to public health and safety.

In June, Lautenschlager and 14 landowners filed a public nuisance complaint against a cranberry grower on Lac Courte Oreilles in Sawyer County. The lawsuit contends that the defendant, William Zawistowski, has polluted the lake by releasing fertilizer and other pollutants into Wisconsin's eighth largest natural lake.

The lawsuit is based largely on Wisconsin's Public Rights Doctrine, which protects the rights of citizens to use and enjoy the navigable waters of the state. The lawsuit says that discharges of phosphorus have encouraged the growth of dense, choking weeds and toxic algae. It asks that phosphorus no longer be discharged and that Musky Bay – an arm of the lake – be dredged to remove phosphorus-laden sediment.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau and nine other agriculture groups unsuccessfully attempted to intervene on the side of the cranberry grower. Last week, a Bayfield County circuit judge who now has the case ruled that there was not sufficiently related interest to intervene.

The farm organizations argue that neither the Department of Natural Resources nor the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has accused Zawistowski of environmental law violations. State law protects the cranberry industry from some regulations, but the farm organizations say that others affecting discharge into waters do apply.

The farm groups' main concern is that the Right to Farm Law will be jeopardized by the case. And they worry that nuisance lawsuits could plague other farmers and other industries if the attorney general prevails.

Source: The Capital Times