MILWAUKEE -- The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a rural town lacks the authority to impose tougher water-quality standards on a livestock farm than the state requires.
Magnolia, a community about 30 miles south of Madison, granted Larson Acres Inc. a permit in 2007 when it wanted to expand, but included a number of conditions because residents blamed it for polluting their water supply. The farm initially had 1,000 cows and now has about 2,900.
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Among the conditions, the farm had to allow the town to conduct monthly water quality tests on its land, and it had to follow certain crop-rotation strategies to reduce nitrate buildup.
The farm sued, arguing that pollution-control measures are laid out by the state and can't be modified by individual towns.
The state Supreme Court agreed, ruling that the town exceeded its authority by imposing additional measures.
The case has been watched by rural Midwest communities struggling to deal with the expansion of so-called factory farms. States throughout the farm belt have seen big farms get bigger as the agriculture industry continues to consolidate.
Similar cases have been filed in six other Midwestern states, but Wisconsin's is believed to be the first to reach a state supreme court.
The lead plaintiff was Magnolia resident John Adams, who says he can't see the nearly 3,000 cows on Larson Acres' farm two miles from his home, but when the wind blows he can smell them.
The stench gives him and his wife headaches. They blame the farm for contaminating their air and polluting the groundwater well they use for drinking, bathing and watering their garden. They no longer feel safe eating the vegetables they grow.
"A township should have the right to establish guidelines to keep its people safe, but it doesn't," Adams said in September when the high court first heard arguments in the case. "Those of us who are being affected, it's like there's nothing we can do."
At that September hearing, Larson Acres attorney Eric McLeod told the justices that a town could introduce its own water quality regulations, just not as part of the permit-granting process. For example, Magnolia could monitor drinking water for nitrates and then sue the farm if pollution levels rose above certain limits, he said.
Similar cases have been filed in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma. Two juries in Missouri have handed out multimillion-dollar awards to homeowners who complained of intolerable odors from factory farms.