Bill Schuette & Right to Farm

Before talking about Bill Schuette I think I should mention that I hold him personally responsible for already putting my Right to Farm protection, and the RTF protection of 1.5 million other Michigan citizens, at risk.

Here are the facts. I live in Ann Arbor, a city with over 100,000 residents. In late 2011 the Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development approved changes to the 2012 GAAMPs that effectively deny Right to Farm protection from all citizens who live in cities of over 100,000. One reason that I think Bill Schuette is responsible is because his office gave the Commissioners of Agriculture legal cover to vote for this change, by advising them that his office “… believes what has been proposed is within the confines of the Right to Farm Act and does accomplish the goals being sought.”  Without this statement from Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, I like to think that the five Commissioners of Agriculture would not have rushed to a decision and approved the 2012 GAAMPs under such unusual circumstances.  So that is his first strike.

Second, because Detroit had its own concerns about the legality of the change made to the 2012 GAAMPs, Senators Virgil Smith and Joe Hune made a request for a formal opinion on the matter from Attorney General Bill Schuette; I have already written extensively about this issue.  But instead of articulating a legal argument about why the change made to the 2012 GAAMPs is valid from a legal perspective – or instead of admitting that the change made to the 2012 GAAMPs is not legally valid – Attorney General Bill Schuette simply failed to answer the question. In response to a FOIA request about this, I was told that the reason that Attorney General Bill Schuette failed to answer is that Senators Smith and Hune withdrew their request, verbally, sometime in the Fall of 2012. How convenient for you, Mr. Schuette, that you were released so informally from this formal request, providing cover for your failure to justify the advice your office gave to the Commission of Agriculture in late 2011 that led to their approval of the 2012 GAAMPs.  Strike two. 

And now here is a new piece of information.  Recall that in 2006, MDA told then Attorney General Mike Cox that MDA had “…recently expanded the site selection GAAMP to operations with any number of animal units…”, a statement which is known to be false by the hundreds of small farmers who are fighting to keep this exact change from happening in 2014.  But when Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office was asked to write an opinion on Right to Farm protection in residential areas in 2011, his office failed to recognize that “Livestock Production Facility” is defined by MDARD to mean 50 animal units or more, and that the Site Selection GAAMPs had never been altered in 2006, as MDARD had asserted, to include operations with “any” number of animal units.  Thus the 2011 informal Attorney General opinion from the office of Bill Schuette, like the 2006 opinion from the office of Mike Cox, is based on demonstrably wrong information.  Strike three.

Note that the 2011 mistake matters for the same reason that the 2006 mistake matters: according to Director Jamie Clover Adams, MDARD will continue to act as if those flawed informal Attorney General opinions are true until they are overturned in court.  So because of these flawed Attorney General opinions MDARD continues to tell cities, townships, and citizens that small farmers in residentially-zoned areas are not protected by Right to Farm, even when they know that there is no factually accurate legal opinion to justify that view.  This also explains why the 2012 request for a formal opinion from Attorney General Bill Schuette mattered so much: it offered an opportunity to assess the legal situation of small farmers living on residentially zoned property based on true facts, rather than on the false statements made by MDARD to the Attorney General in 2006.

All of this would be extraordinarily bad performance for any Attorney General.  But Bill Schuette isn’t just any Attorney General.  Bill Schuette was Director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture (1991 – 1994) when Right to Farm was an ongoing issue, a State Senator (1994 – 2002) who voted to pass amendments to RTF in 1995 and 1999, an Appeals Court Judge (2003 – 2009) who ruled on Right to Farm cases, and is now Michigan’s Attorney General (2011 – present)  who has answered one request for an informal opinion on RTF (2011), but has declined to answer a second request for his formal opinion (2012).  

There is perhaps no one in the state who understands Michigan's Right to Farm Act better than Bill Schuette, and no one who is better equipped to answer that 2012 request for a formal legal opinion. And yet he failed to do so.  In my view it is because he knows that the advice that his office gave to the Agriculture Commission about the 2012 GAAMPs was a mistake – possibly because he and his office failed to understand at that point that the Site Selection GAAMPs had never actually been changed in 2006 the way MDARD said they were.  And if that is true, then this entire 2014 effort to change the Site Selection GAAMPs to deny roughly 8 million Michigan residents from Right to Farm protection would really be about covering up the mistake that MDARD made in 2006, and the one that Bill Schuette and his office made in late 2011.

So now you know that you should consider the source when you hear me talk about Bill Schuette, because I do harbor some small bits of frustration at the lack of fairness and professionalism of this man, and especially about the oversize impact that those traits have had on Small Farmers in Michigan. But given his decades-long history of both developing and interpreting the Right to Farm Act in Michigan, his biography becomes an important part of the story being told here.  And so here it is, in brief:

  • Bill Schuette grew up in Midland, Michigan, the son and then later the step-son of Dow Chemical executives.
  • In 1984, at the age of 31, Bill Schuette won a seat in the US House of Representatives, 10th District, where he served on the House Agriculture Committee.
  • In 1990 Bill Schuette challenged Carl Levin for his US Senate seat, and lost.  Fortunately for him, in January of 1991 newly elected Governor John Engler removed 4 of the 5 sitting Commissioners of Agriculture, and appointed new ones. Those 5 Ag Commissioners voted immediately to install Bill Schuette as the new Director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, where he served until 1994.
  • Bill Schuette next ran for a State Senate seat in the 35th District, and won. He served as a state senator from 1994 until 2002, and while in the senate voted for both the 1995 and the 1999 amendments to the Right to Farm Act.
  • From 2003 to 2009, Bill Schuette sat on the Michigan Court of Appeals. My favorite RTF opinion from this period is the Village of Rothbury v Double JJ Resort Ranch case in 2004, in which Judge Bill Schuette comes down so clearly on the side of the farmer, despite the fact that his property was in a village and was zoned residential:

… MCL 286.473(1), (3) indicates that farming operations that conform to GAAMPs are not public nuisances, even when they change size, ownership, or the type of product produced. Hence, because an ordinance provision that only permits single family dwellings, playgrounds, and parks would prohibit farming operations, the ordinance provision conflicts with the RTFA and is unenforceable.

  • And now since 2011, Bill Schuette has been our Attorney General.

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