BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
None of us really knew what the lyrics were to that great piece of mid-’70s music by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (written and first recorded by Bruce Springsteen). You know, Springsteen wrote the second line as “cut up like a deuce.” Not until Manfred Mann rewrote the line to be “revved up like a deuce,” did the mondegreen of the line famously become a reference to a feminine hygiene product.
But we digress. We’re really talking light and soybeans here. Recently, the vigilant treeandneighborlawblog editors read a book review for a new tome on light pollution called “The End of Night.” It reminded us how soybeans like the dark, and about the plight of Farmer Smalley.
Farmer Smalley raises soybeans in Wyandot County, Ohio. When the Ohio Department of Transportation installed high mast lighting at the US 30/US 23 interchange, Mr. Smalley’s soybeans would not flower and flourish under the bright nighttime lights. This is apparently not an unknown effect. He sued the DOT in the Ohio Court of Claims, seeking damages in a self-written complaint.
The Clerk heard the matter administratively and concluded that the lights were not a nuisance, apparently because of the benefit such lights had for the motoring public. However, the loss of two acres of beans did constitute a constitutional “taking of property” for which he should be compensated. The damages were pretty meager for 2007: $512 plus his $25 filing fee.
Still, the Clerk did not dismiss out of hand the notion that light pollution could constitute a nuisance in some circumstances, those where the social benefit of the light was insignificant next to the interference caused the neighbor.
A few months later, the full Court of Claims reversed the judgment. It held that the Ohio constitution did not permit compensation for consequential damages to property, only for the actual taking of property. Because of that. Farmer Smalley’s loss was not compensable.
Even so, both the Court and the Clerk apparently accepted the notion that the light pollution damaged Smalley’s property. It was just that the damage, however real, could not be compensated.
Smalley v. Ohio Dept. of Transportation, 142 Ohio Misc.2d 27, 869 N.E.2d 777, 2007 -Ohio- 1932 (Ohio Ct.Cl., Mar. 15, 2007). Farmer Smalley has a soybean field next to a four-lane highway intersection. The Ohio Department of Transportation constructed high-mast lighting at the intersection in 2005, and since then, Farmer Smalley’s soybeans failed to mature during the growing season. Smalley was forced to mow down two acres of failed crop, a failure he attributes to the lighting. He lost about 120 bushels of beans, which — at $6.00 a bushel — were worth $720.
Farmer Smalley sued the DOT in the Ohio Court of Claims. DOT admitted it had installed the mast lighting, which it said was intended to “safely illuminate the expressway.” DOT argued the installed lights “are the safest and most efficient lighting source given the traffic flow and lighting required at interchanges.” It admitted that light did “occasionally bleed onto adjacent property [and] there is little doubt that defendant’s light encroaches upon plaintiff’s property.” It argued, however, that it could not be held liable for any damage to the plaintiff’s bean crop caused by its light encroachment. It also argued that Farmer Smalley’s cost of raising the beans was $256.47 an acre, reducing his net loss to $512.94.
Held: The Clerk of the Court held that the light pollution was not a nuisance. However, he found that the actual harm suffered by the farmer was different in kind from harm suffered by the general public, as required to establish a taking under the “Takings Clause” of the Ohio Constitution.
It appears that farmer Smalley filed his complaint himself, because DOT flailed about in its defense as if it wasn’t sure where the farmer was going. It argued at length that its lighting was not a nuisance, because Smalley had offered no proof that DOT was negligent in erecting the lighting. It asked the Court to weigh the benefit that the high mast lighting gave to thousands of motorists against the harm the lights caused the plaintiff in destroying two acres of his bean crop.
The Clerk sagely noted that DOT “… essentially proposed that plaintiff should have to bear a financial burden for his crop loss in a situation where he was legally using his land for a specific valuable purpose and the harm caused was attributable to the acts of DOT.”
He defined an absolute nuisance as a distinct civil wrong arising or resulting from the invasion of a legally protected interest, one consisting of unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of the property of another. Such a nuisance was the doing of anything without just cause or excuse, the necessary consequence of which interferes with or annoys another in the enjoyment of his or her legal rights, or the collecting and keeping on one’s premises of anything inherently dangerous or likely to do mischief, if it escapes, which, escaping, injures another in the enjoyment of his legal rights. A qualified nuisance, on the other hand, was distinguished from absolute nuisance as being dependent upon negligence consists of anything lawfully but so negligently or carelessly done or permitted as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm which, in due course, results in injury to another.
Considering the utility of the high mast lighting to the motoring public, the Clerk correctly concluded that the lighting was neither an absolute nor qualified nuisance. But that didn’t mean that Mr. Smalley was out of luck. Under the “Takings Clause,” any taking — whether it be physical or merely deprives the owner of an intangible interest appurtenant to the premises — entitles the owner to compensation. In order to establish a taking, a landowner must demonstrate a substantial or unreasonable interference with a property right, and such interference may involve the actual physical taking of real property, or it may include the deprivation of an intangible interest in the premises. Something more than the loss of market value or loss of comfortable enjoyment of the property is needed, to constitute a taking under the “Takings Clause:” governmental activity must physically displace a person from space in which he was entitled to exercise dominion consistent with the rights of ownership. To constitute a taking, an actual harm suffered by the plaintiff must differ in kind rather than in degree from the general public.
Later, the full court reversed on different grounds, holding that the Ohio Constitution did not permit compensation for less than a full loss of land.
Nevertheless, the notion that light can constitute a nuisance and that a property owner suffering from light shining onto his or her land from another location, appears to be accepted.
– Thomas L. Root