THE state of Florida must compensate a farmer for the value of swine production facilities rendered useless by a 2002 ballot initiative that effectively banned the use of gestation stalls.
Affirming a 2011 circuit court ruling, a state appeals court said Florida must pay farmer Stephen Basford $505,000 plus interest because the amendment "deprived him of all economically viable and reasonable use of his business for a public purpose."
The case could serve as a precedent in other states where voters have moved to limit farmers' options in animal housing systems.
Florida was the first state to enact such a measure, and the Basford case was the first to seek compensation under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment provision prohibiting private property from being taken for a public use without just compensation, known generally as the "takings clause."
Florida's so-called "pregnant pig amendment" prohibits confining a gestating sow "in such a way that she is prevented from turning around freely."
The measure won the support of 54.8% of Florida voters in November 2002 and led Basford to shut down his sow operation in 2003, five years prior to the amendment taking effect.
Lawyers for the plaintiff argued in 2010 before Florida's Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit that Basford would have had to spend as much as $600,000 to become compliant with the amendment and instead opted to shut down his operation based on consultation with the state's agriculture department.
He filed a compensation claim asking the state to pay $1.35 million for the loss of his business. Twice, the state legislature passed bills that would have paid at least part of Basford's claim, but the funding was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
Basford sued the state in 2010, and in a September 2011 ruling, Judge John Fishel agreed that the plaintiff was entitled to recover the fair market value of barns and other improvements related to the sow operation.
The state's appeal, handled by Florida Attorney General Pamela Bondi, argued that Basford had waited too long to sue and that he was not entitled to compensation under the takings clause because he continued to produce crops on the farm.
Potential for precedent
The 2-1 ruling in favor of Basford does not necessarily indicate how judges in other states might rule in future cases, but legal expert Elizabeth Rumley sees the decision as a major development in how states treat farmers affected by such measures.
"Florida is where it all began when it comes to farm animal confinement laws," she explained, and while the Basford case might not be a binding precedent, per se, "it is definitely something that will be used in similar cases moving forward."
Rumley, a staff attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center, pointed out that the confinement housing-related ballot measures passed in eight other states are all different from the Florida amendment, so each court case would be tried on its own merits, given the applicable law.
A potential federal statute, meanwhile, means the principles argued in the Basford case could be applied on much broader scale.
"The 'egg bill' pending in Congress could bring up another issue, because that would be looking at the takings clause on a federal level," Rumley said.
Congress is considering legislation that would mandate a single federal housing standard for egg-laying hens, a concept supported by the United Egg Producers and The Humane Society of the United States but opposed by most other major livestock and commodity organizations.
In the Basford suit, the plaintiff did not seek compensation for any loss of value in the land itself, a distinction that Rumley told Feedstuffs was very important in determining that his situation did fall under the takings clause.
Instead, his claim focused on the loss of improvements to the land, including a breeding and gestation barn, a farrowing barn, two finishing barns, a feed mill and equipment shed, a lab used for artificial insemination, four water wells and the farm's waste lagoons.
The appeals court upheld Fishel's ruling that the "highly integrated" nature of Basford's swine operation was such that the stall ban removed all "reasonable use and value" from those improvements, entitling him to compensation.
Judge Phil Padovano, in a dissenting opinion, claimed that Basford did not deserve compensation because the sow operation made up only four acres of his 318-acre farm, and thus, the takings clause did not apply.
Padovano's two colleagues on the appeals panel, however, sided with the farmer.
While the Attorney General's office said it is exploring its legal options, it now appears far more likely that the state will ultimately be required to pay Basford for the value of his sow production facilities plus interest.
"This case isn't necessarily the way every judge would find in every situation," Rumley concluded, "but two courts have now clearly ruled that way already."