Tonopah, Arizona is a sleepy little desert town about an hour outside of Phoenix in Maricopa County. It’s known for sweeping views of nearby Saddle Mountain, wide blue skies, and thermal hot springs. It’s a small rural commnity with a couple of gas stations and restauraants, a post office, an RV park... and an enormous factory egg farm.
In late 2013, Hickman’s Family Farms bought 360 acres in Tonopah to build a chicken factory farm. This facility now houses four million birds, but eventually it could have 28 buildings full of chickens, two egg processing plants and 12 million chickens—all less than a mile from the center of Tonopah.
Factory farms don’t make good neighbors. They attract flies (according to one study, homes within half a mile of a poultry facility have 83 times more flies and mosquitos than average), rodents and other pests. Residents describe flies that swarm in every time they open their doors and cover the floors and their food. In 2015, Tonopah residents filed at least 123 complaints about noxious odors. In 2016, at least 94 complaints were filed. And they don’t just stink—chicken factory farms emit a hazardous mix of pollutants containing ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds which pose a significant threat to the health of those living nearby. In Tonopah, parents have seen children’s asthma symptoms worsen. Tourism has also suffered, with the town’s RV park experiencing steep declines in visitorship. In TripAdvisor reviews, guests reference strong odors as a reason why they won’t return
Family-owned, But Not An Average Family Farm
Hickman’s Family Farms is a family-owned Arizona corporation, but it doesn’t act like an average family farm. The Tonopah facility is one of several industrial-scale Hickman’s egg complexes in Arizona, California and Colorado, including an even larger facility just 20 miles down the road in Arlington, Arizona. And the company has a level of access to the government that few family farms could ever dream of. Clint Hickman is an elected member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. He’s also Vice President of sales and marketing for Hickman’s Family Farms. Glenn Hickman, current President of the company, makes substantial campaign contributions, and the company has hired six lobbyists over the past eight years.
The political connections of the Hickman family may look like an insurmountable challenge for the rural community surrounding the proposed site. But with support from allies at the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project and others, the local community got organized. Residents immediately formed STOPP—Save Tonopah by Opposing Poultry Plant to collectively advocate on behalf of impacted community members. In September of 2016, allied community group Don’t Waste Arizona filed a lawsuit, which is ongoing, against Hickman’s based on its failure to report toxic air pollution as required by federal law. In August 2017, local businesses and dozens of neighbors filed several more lawsuits, alleging that the facility is a nuisance because its pollution, odor, flies, and other impacts are harming their ability to use and enjoy their property. Such nuisance actions are one of the last lines of defense for rural communities, and are under attack across the country by corporate efforts to pass so-called “right to farm” laws. Arizona has a right to farm law too, but it only protects operations that, unlike Hickman, were there first.
Company Goes on Offense Against Community Legal Action
These neighbors surely expected that they would face an uphill battle in court. But few probably expected that the company would go on the offense, filing its own lawsuit against its neighbors. Just weeks after community members filed their nuisance suits, Hickman’s responded with a “declaratory judgment” suit, which seeks to preempt the citizens’ environmental and nuisance cases—and any other such future cases—by asking the court to simply declare that the Hickman’s facility is complying with all relevant laws.
Courts often reject declaratory judgment cases when they are transparent attempts to wrest control of ongoing litigation, choose a different venue, and disadvantage the other party—in this case, the citizens who have already filed nuisance and pollution lawsuits in state and federal court. And the court should do so here. The real threat posed by this lawsuit is the chilling effect that this type of action can have on citizens seeking to exercise their rights and protect their health and homes. Hickmans’ lawsuit appears to be calculated more to intimidate neighbors than to defend itself.
In this David-and-Goliath struggle, residents of the tiny town of Tonopah have declared that they won’t allow their health, community, or quality of life to be sacrificed for Hickman’s Family Farms’ profits. The declaratory judgment suit the company filed against them suggests the residents have caught Hickman’s attention, but it also shows the company is not the good neighbor it has made itself out to be. Regardless of the outcome of the recently filed court cases, if Hickman’s continues to add insult to injury by pursuing its neighbors in court it stands to lose in an equally important venue—the court of public opinion.