Community Agriculture Alliance: In defense of the farmer
February 19, 2010
A recent decision by the Colorado Court of Appeals confirms the state's general policies that are protective of agriculture. The case also highlights the fact it's always best if the farmer can prove the reasonableness of his actions, if he is to be successful in court.
In 2003, farmer Christopher Vandemoer installed a large (nearly half-mile long) portable irrigation system that he could move from one part of his property to another, across a county road, in rural Logan County. For some reason, Vandemoer appears to have offended the officials of Logan County and spurred them to not only adopt a resolution prohibiting irrigation systems from being moved across county roads, but also to initiate a court proceeding to stop Vandemoer from obstructing the county road.
Logan County sought an injunction against Vandemoer. It alleged that Vandemoer was in violation of the county's resolution, that he was guilty of creating a public nuisance and that he was in violation of a Colorado criminal statute when he obstructed a highway. The trial court took a very practical approach to the issue, concluding that Vandemoer's actions were just not significant enough to justify the type of relief the county was requesting.
The facts established at the trial court included the following:
The county road that separated the parcels was "an unpaved and infrequently used county road."
"Approximately seven times annually during the irrigation season of July through September, defendant moves his sprinkler system from one field to another, across the county road, a process that blocks the road for as long as 11 minutes.
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"When doing so, defendant places two trucks on either end of the road with hazard lights to warn any oncoming traffic."
The farmer's "agricultural sprinkler system was an implement of husbandry."
When the trial court dismissed the county's proceedings, the county appealed that decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals balanced the rights and responsibilities of the county, under Colorado law, against the rights of Vandemoer. The court refused to enforce the county's resolution that prohibited all irrigation equipment on a county road, finding that in spite of the county's broad authority over roads, the state had established that use of roads by an implement of husbandry cannot be totally prohibited.
The Court of Appeals also cited the fact "Colorado is a state with strong agricultural ties which maintains a policy of support for agricultural operations." And the court discussed at length the fact that Colorado law provides special protective treatment for an "implement of husbandry" allowing limited use of the highways for such implements and having special permissive rules. Although there are prohibitions against overflowing a highway with water, so long as irrigation equipment is capped to prevent the discharge of water onto the highway, there is no violation.
Although Colorado's policies in support of agriculture provided some defense for Vandemoer, his efforts and his evidence were critical to a favorable decision for him. He crossed the road with his irrigation system only a few times each summer. When Vandemoer did cross the road, it was for a very limited time period and he took steps to protect traffic and to protect his agricultural equipment on the seldom-used county road. These facts were critical to the ultimate court protection of his agricultural activities.
(The citation for this case is Board of County Commissioners of the County of Logan v. Christopher Vandemoer, 205 P.3d 423. Colo. App. 2008)
Rich Tremaine is a Steamboat Springs attorney who deals with agriculture issues, and he is an advisory board member for the Community Agriculture Alliance.