The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected a claim that could have opened small farmers to new manure regulations.

The court on Sept. 26 overturned a lower-court ruling that would have allowed local municipalities to impose more burdensome regulations on small farms than the state allows to be placed on large operations.

“This ‘irony’ runs afoul of basic principles of statutory construction,” Justice Max Baer wrote for the majority in the 6-1 ruling.

In 2013, Columbia County farmer Scott Sponenberg got a special exception from his township to build a 4,800-head swine nursery. A citizens group quickly challenged the township’s decision.

Commonwealth Court, a state appellate court that often handles regulatory matters, ruled against Sponenberg in January 2018.

The court ruled that a provision in the state Nutrient Management Act that pre-empts stricter local ordinances only applies to farms that need a nutrient management plan.

But most livestock farms, including Sponenberg’s proposed pig barn, aren’t large enough to require a nutrient management plan.

The appellate ruling would have opened those farms to additional local regulation, potentially increasing costs and making new operations harder to start.

“Family farmers are some of the most important business people in our state, and they’re facing new pressures every day just to stay in business,” said Matthew M. Hennesy, an attorney from the Barley Snyder firm that defended Sponenberg. “Municipal regulations that are more aggressive than our own state environmental laws shouldn’t be an additional issue these businesses and potential businesses should have to face.”

The state attorney general’s office, Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Protection joined Sponenberg’s appeal, arguing that the Nutrient Management Act was intended to protect all farms.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and PennAg Industries Association also joined Sponenberg’s appeal.

Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty dissented from the ruling, saying it “effectively leaves the localized health and environmental impacts of the manure practices of such (small) farms ... outside of any regulation.”

Hennesy disagrees. The Department of Environmental Protection regulates all farms that use or produce manure, and requires all farms that don’t need a nutrient management plan to have a simpler document called a manure management plan, he said.

In the six years since he got his original approval, Sponenberg has been making his living as an auctioneer and hay farmer.

He planned to build the pig barn to derive more of his income from farming and spend more time with his family. Finally, the path to construction appears to be clear.

Sponenberg said the court decision is good for Pennsylvania’s ag industry as a whole, but he’s also relieved that the long-running dispute is settled.

“We just hope to build the barn and move on with our lives,” he said.

Lancaster Farming