What can you do when the neighbour from hell is a farmer?
The charms of rural life are why most of us buy a property in France, but even the pleasures of the countryside are accompanied by their own risks and drawbacks.
In France, a country in which farming almost defines the nation, it does sometimes mean that you need to make compromises with the sights, sounds and smells that come with it.
Planning laws, in particular, are strongly weighed in favour of agricultural development, and in rural areas it is also the cornerstone of local economic development policies.
Of course, the pre-eminent status of agriculture does not inevitably mean that you should lie awake at night worrying about the prospect of a new pig farm on your doorstep.
Despite the caricatural image of French farmers, most are aware of the sensitivity of many of their activities and they have no wish to upset their neighbours.
Nevertheless, most is not all, and even where a farmer makes an effort, some uses can be uncomfortably close and annoying.
Where a conflict does arise it is still possible to take legal action on grounds of nuisance, despite the fact that planning consent for the activity may exist.
Being granted planning consent or an activity does not give the farmer the right to cause grief to their neighbours.
Clearly, you need to try and sort the problem on an amicable basis, but if this cannot be achieved, then a legal action may be the only alternative approach.
One of the guiding legal principles that operate in relation to nuisance from commercial, industrial or agricultural activities is that of ‘pre-occupation’.
What this principle states is that where the activity pre-dated occupation of the property by the complainant then no redress is ordinarily available.
Accordingly, if you move into a property next to a duck farm then you cannot later complain about the odours that may emanate from it; they were there first.
However, this principle is subject to three main conditions:
- That the activity is taking place in conformity with the relevant regulations;
- That the activity does not grow in a manner that increases the level of the nuisance;
- That the nuisance is not so great that the property becomes uninhabitable.
In relation to the last condition, it is the right to a respect of private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights that can be invoked.
Complaints that appear in the French courts often do so on the basis of invoking breach of the second condition, in which an activity was previously tolerable is no longer so because the scale and nature of the activity has changed.
This principal can be illustrated in a recent case where a couple bought an action for nuisance against a neighbouring pig farmer for the offensive odours generated by the farm.
The farmer had obtained planning consent to increase the number of buildings from 20 to 400!
The case was initially won by the complainant but then overturned by the court of appeal on the grounds that the pig farm existed before the complainant moved into the property.
However, the Supreme Court, the Cour de Cassation, finally ruled that as the activity was no longer being carried out on the same basis, then it was possible to entertain an action on grounds of nuisance, and that in this case the complaint was justified.
Clearly, each case will be considered on its merits and in one we reported on last year (see below) a couple lost their battle against a local farmer as the court considered that the erection of three duck houses was a continuation of existing activities.