Letter: Animal rules don’t violate Constitution, Right to Farm

Posted 9/15/19

To the editor:

I attended the September 10 Westport Board of Health public hearing concerning the keeping of farm animals. I did so because I am concerned as a Westport resident both about …

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Letter: Animal rules don’t violate Constitution, Right to Farm

Posted

To the editor:

I attended the September 10 Westport Board of Health public hearing concerning the keeping of farm animals. I did so because I am concerned as a Westport resident both about protecting the health and safety of Westport’s farm animals and about assuring that the rights of farmers in our right-to-farm community are not abridged.

At the hearing, many farm owners voiced opposition to proposed regulations governing the keeping of farm animals, several of which cogently addressed apparent ambiguities in the proposal. However, a number of opponents contended that the proposed regulations were completely unlawful under Westport’s Right-to-Farm By-Law and unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As a retired attorney with extensive experience regarding statutory law and the Constitution, I must take strong exception to these contentions.

Specifically, the contention that the Right-to-Farm By-Law prohibits adoption of the proposed regulations, particularly as to the registry of farm animals, has no legal validity. The act merely states that the Town cannot “prohibit, unreasonably regulate, or require a special permit to engage in farming”. It does not bar reasonable regulations such as requiring property owners to notify the Board of Health about the type and number of livestock and poultry they are keeping on their land. As a citizen, I am obligated to vaccinate my dog, register my car and tell the census takers how many people live in my house. Requiring farm owners to register their animals is no more unreasonable.

Likewise, the proposal to allow the Board of Health to inspect farms to assure compliance with its regulations does not violate the 4th Amendment. That amendment simply prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures” of property without due process. It is well-settled that governmental authorities such as the police, fire department, building department, the tax assessor, and child protection services have a constitutional right to enter private property to assure compliance with their regulations.

Businesses such as restaurants, beauty salons and manufacturing plants are subject to periodic governmental inspections whether or not there is prior evidence of non-compliance.The Board of Health enjoys the same inspection rights as to farms and other property within its purview.

To be sure, 4th Amendment concerns suggest that the board should provide advance notice of farm property inspections in all but the most compelling circumstances (such as conditions found at the Route 177 tenant farm) and that a farmer’s living quarters should not be searched without judicial authorization. Nevertheless, nothing in the 4th Amendment prevents the Board from monitoring compliance with its regulations by conducting lawful inspections of farm properties.

Many towns, including right-to-farm communities such as Dartmouth, have enacted regulations requiring the registration, inspection, and humane treatment of farm animals which are more stringent than the Westport Board of Health has proposed. To my knowledge, none of these regulations has been judicially determined to be either unlawful or unconstitutional.

All that said, I believe that the proposed regulations should be edited to address some textual ambiguities that could be construed to impact farmer rights in a manner inconsistent with the board’s intent, as reflected in public statements by its Chairman. I hope to have the opportunity to share my views in this regard with the board and with the stakeholders of the proposed regulations.

Keith S. Watson

Westport

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