KELLY BRANTON; SHAWN BRANTON; MITCHELL BRANTON, A MINOR, BY KELLY BRANTON AND SHAWN BRANTON, GUARDIANS; LILLY BRANTON, A MINOR, BY KELLY BRANTON AND SHAWN BRANTON, GUARDIANS; BECK BRANTON, A MINOR, BY SHAWN BRANTON, GUARDIAN; PAT COURTWRIGHT; PHILIP COURTWRIGHT; GARY E. JOHNSON; GEORGINA B. JOHNSON; CAROL KLINE; RICHARD LONG; ANN MCKEAN; THOMAS J. MCKEAN; DEBORAH A. MUTHLER; STEPHEN K. MUTHLER; STEPHEN P. RICE; SUSAN RICE; AND KIM SHIPMAN, Appellants
NICHOLAS MEAT, LLC; BRETT BOWES D/B/A BOWES FARM; CAMERER FARMS, INC.; AND JAB LIVESTOCK, LLC, Appellees
from the Judgment Entered March 4, 2016 In the Court of
Common Pleas of Lycoming County Civil Division at No(s):
BEFORE: BOWES, OLSON and STABILE, JJ.
Kelly Branton et al, appeal from the judgment
entered on March 4, 2016 in favor of Nicholas Meat, LLC
("Nicholas"), Brett Bowes d/b/a Bowes Farm, Camerer
Farms, Inc. ("Camerer Farm" and together with
Nicholas and Bowes Farm "Farmers"), and JAB
Livestock, LLC ("JAB"). After careful consideration,
we hold that Appellants' action is partially barred by
the Right to Farm Act ("RTFA"), 3 P.S. §§
951-957. Accordingly, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and
remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
factual background and procedural history of this case are as
follows. Nicholas operates a slaughterhouse in Loganton,
Pennsylvania. The slaughterhouse generates food processing
waste ("FPW"),  which is rich in nutrients essential to
farming. Beginning in 2011, Nicholas began transporting FPW
from the slaughterhouse to the Bowes and Camerer Farms. The
FPW is immediately spread on the Bowes and Camerer Farms
and/or stored in a 2, 400, 000 gallon tank on the Bowes Farm
("the storage tank"). The FPW stored on the Bowes
Farm is later spread on the Bowes and Camerer Farms.
March 17, 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental
Protection ("DEP") issued Camerer Farm a notice of
violation ("NOV").Appellants' Brief in
Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment, 1/19/16, at
Exhibit 3. That NOV stated that Camerer Farm violated 35 P.S.
§§ 6018.302(a) and 6018.610(1) by spreading FPW
between February 25 and 27, 2011. DEP informed Camerer Farm
that it needed a nutrient management plan or needed a
permit for spreading FPW on its land. The following day,
March 18, 2011, DEP issued a NOV to Nicholas for permitting
its FPW to be spread on Camerer Farm between February 25 and
27, 2011. Appellants' Brief in Opposition to Motion for
Summary Judgment, 1/19/16, at Exhibit 4. That NOV stated that
Nicholas violated 25 Pa. Code § 291.201(a) in allowing
its FPW to be spread on Camerer Farm.
April 15, 2013, DEP issued a NOV to Nicholas for providing
FPW which was spread on Bowes Farm in late March and/or early
April 2013. See Appellants' Brief in Opposition
to Motion for Summary Judgment, 1/19/16, at Exhibit 5. That
NOV stated that Nicholas violated 35 P.S. § 6018.610(9)
and 25 Pa. Code § 287.101(b)(2) by permitting its FPW to
be spread within 150 feet of a stream and in an area not
covered by a nutrient management plan. That same day, April
15, 2013, DEP issued a NOV to Bowes Farm for spreading FPW in
late March and/or early April 2013. See
Appellants' Brief in Opposition to Motion for Summary
Judgment, 1/19/16, at Exhibit 6. That NOV stated that
spreading FPW within 150 feet of a stream and in an area not
covered by a nutrient management plan violated section
14, 2013, Appellants filed a complaint which alleged
negligence and a temporary private nuisance. Less than one
month later, DEP issued a NOV to Bowes Farm for spreading FPW
on June 25, 2013. Appellants' Brief in Opposition to
Motion for Summary Judgment, 1/19/16, at Exhibit 7. That NOV
stated that Bowes Farm violated section 287.101(b)(2) by
spreading FPW during summer when the relevant nutrient
management plan stated that FPW would not be spread during
November 15, 2013, Appellants filed their second amended
complaint. On December 18, 2015, Farmers moved for summary
judgment. As part of their summary judgment motion,
Farmers argued that Appellants' claims were barred by
RTFA's statute of repose. On March 4, 2016, the trial
court granted Farmers' summary judgment motion.
Contemporaneously therewith, the trial court issued an
opinion outlining its rationale for granting summary
judgment. Branton v. Nicholas Meat, LLC, 2016 WL
1270378 (C.C.P. Lycoming Mar. 4, 2016). This timely appeal
present three issues for our review:
1. Did the [t]rial [c]ourt err as a matter of law in holding
on [s]ummary [j]udgment that [Appellants'] claims were
barred by [RTFA] despite the evidence presented by
[Appellants] that [Farmers'] practice of spreading [FPW]
was unlawful and in violation of various regulations, codes[,
] and statutes?
2. Did the [t]rial [c]ourt err as a matter of law in
rejecting [Appellants'] claim that [Farmers']
practice of spreading [FPW] was not a "normal
agricultural operation" under the RTFA?
3. Did the [t]rial [c]ourt err as a matter of law in holding
on [s]ummary [j]udgment that [Appellants'] claims were
barred by RTFA despite the evidence presented by [Appellants]
that the addition of a[n FPW] waste storage tank on the Bowes
Farm in April 2012 was a substantial change under the RTFA?
Brief at 7.
three of Appellants' issues challenge the trial
court's determination that RTFA bars their action against
Farmers and JAB. "The trial court's entry of summary
judgment presents a question of law, and therefore our
standard of review is de novo and our scope of
review is plenary." Fisher v. A.O. Smith Harvestore
Products, Inc., 145 A.3d 738, 741 (Pa. Super. 2016)
(en banc) (citation omitted).
RTFA provides, in relevant part, that:
No nuisance action shall be brought against an agricultural
operation which has lawfully been in operation for one year
or more prior to the date of bringing such action, where the
conditions or circumstances complained of as constituting the
basis for the nuisance action have existed substantially
unchanged since the established date of operation and are
normal agricultural operations, or if the physical facilities
of such agricultural operations are substantially expanded or
substantially altered and the expanded or substantially
altered facility has either: (1) been in operation for one
year or more prior to the date of bringing such action, or
(2) been addressed in a nutrient management plan approved
prior to the commencement of such expanded or altered
operation pursuant to [3 Pa.C.S.A. § 506], and is
otherwise in compliance therewith[.]
3 P.S. § 954(a). Section 954(a) is a statute of repose
and not a statute of limitations. Gilbert v. Synagro
Cent., LLC, 131 A.3d 1, 15 (Pa. 2015).
are three key requirements for section 954(a) to bar a
nuisance action: (1) the agricultural operation against which
the action is brought must have lawfully operated for at
least a year prior to the filing of the complaint; (2) (a)
the conditions or circumstances that are the basis for the
complaint must have existed substantially unchanged since the
established date of operation, or (b) if physical facilities
have been substantially expanded or altered such facilities
must have (i) operated for at least one year prior to the
filing of the complaint or (ii) been addressed in a nutrient
management plan approved prior to the commencement of such
expanded or altered operation; and (3) the conditions or
circumstances are normal agricultural
operations. See 3 P.S. § 954(a).
begin our analysis by examining what standard governed the
trial court's consideration of Farmers' summary
judgment motion. Appellants argue that the trial court was
required to apply the general summary judgment standard.
According to Appellants, summary judgment was only
appropriate if "the record clearly demonstrates that
there [were] no genuine issue of material fact[.]"
Telwell Inc. v. Grandbridge Real Estate Capital,
LLC, 143 A.3d 421, 425 (Pa. Super. 2016) (citation
omitted). According to Appellants, the trial court (and this
Court) "must view the record in the light most favorable
to [Appellants], resolving all doubts as to the existence of
a genuine issue of material fact against [Farmers]."
Id. (citation omitted). Farmers, on the other
hand, argue that the applicability of the statute of repose
was a purely legal question for the trial court to decide.
See Smith v. Workmen's Comp. Appeal Bd. (Concept
Planners & Designers), 670 A.2d 1146,
1148-1149 (Pa. 1996). Thus, according to Farmers, there was
no genuine issue of material fact relating to the
applicability of the statute of repose.
agree with Farmers that the applicability of the statue of
repose in this case was a purely legal question that the
trial court could decide on a motion for summary judgment. In
Gilbert, our Supreme Court explained that
generally, statutes of repose are jurisdictional and their
scope is a question of law for courts to determine. . . .
[T]here may be cases in which a statute of repose's
applicability turns on resolution of factual issues. In such
cases, the facts relevant to jurisdiction are so intertwined
with those relating to the merits of the action, the
jurisdictional determination will necessarily involve fact
Gilbert, 131 A.3d at 15 (internal citations
Gilbert, the appellees were individuals who owned or
resided on properties adjacent to a farm known as Hilltop
Farms. Biosolids were spread on 14 fields of Hilltop Farms.
The appellees alleged that extremely offensive odors emanated
from the spread biosolids. The appellees sued various
entities and individuals, including the owner of Hilltop
Farms, claiming private nuisance, negligence, and trespass.
Appellants moved for summary judgment on the basis that the
appellees' nuisance claim was barred by the one-year
statute of repose in section 954(a) of the RTFA. In finding
that the RTFA statute of repose barred the appellees'
nuisance claim, our Supreme Court held as follows:
the only question was whether the application of biosolids is
a "normal agricultural operation;" there was no
pertinent question regarding the character of the substance
in this specific case or appellants' use of it at Hilltop
* * *
[T]he necessary facts are undisputed and of record. These
facts include the timing and quantity of appellants'
application of biosolids, the responsive actions by appellees
and the timing of those actions, the regulatory oversight of
appellants' biosolids application, and the history and
extent of biosolids usage in Pennsylvania's farming
industry. . . . [N]either party's conduct is unknown or
in dispute. Rather, the only question is whether appellants
meet the statutory requirements necessary to avail themselves
of the RTFA's statute of repose. This question does not
involve fact finding; it involves the application of a
statute's definition to the record's facts. It is
well settled that determining whether an activity, entity, or
object falls within the meaning of a statutory definition is
a matter of statutory interpretation, and thus is a question
of law for the court to decide. Accordingly, the
determination of whether [section] 954(a) applied in the
instant matter was a question of law for the trial court.
* * *
Th[e General Assembly's intent in passing RTFA] cannot be
achieved by permitting the applicability of the RTFA's
statute of repose to be dependent on an idiosyncratic
determination of a farming practice's
"normality" as perceived by a jury in a specific
case. . . . [T]he inquiry under [section] 954(a)-whether an
activity is a "normal agricultural operation"-is a
categorical inquiry for the court. Otherwise, agricultural
practices would be subject to nuisance suits based on varying
local perceptions of what constitutes a "normal
agricultural operation, " as parochial opinion differs
from jury to jury and juror to juror. What is common in one
area may be foreign to another. Having courts apply the
RTFA's definitions achieves the meaningful degree of
legal certainty, uniformity, and consistency that the RTFA
was intended to provide to farms.
Gilbert, 131 A.3d at 16-18 (internal citations,
footnote, and certain paragraph breaks omitted).
three of the issues raised by Appellants in this case
similarly deal with pure questions of law. In their first
issue, Appellants argue that Farmers' activities were
unlawful. There is no dispute about what the relevant
federal, state, and local laws were during the applicable
time period nor is there any dispute about the factual
activities surrounding Farmers' use and storage of FPW.
Instead, the only dispute is whether those activities
violated various federal, state, or local laws and, if so,
whether such noncompliance resulted in Farmers'
activities being unlawful. Whether a practice violates
federal, state, or local law is a pure question of law which
the trial court could decide on summary judgment. Similarly,
whether a violation of federal, state, or local law rendered
Farmers' agricultural operations unlawful is a pure
question of law which the trial court could decide on summary
their second issue, Appellants argue that spreading FPW is
not a normal agricultural operation. As in Gilbert,
there is "no pertinent question regarding the character
of the substance in this specific case or [Farmers'] use
of it at [the Bowes and Camerer Farms]."
Gilbert, 131 A.3d at 16. Thus, just as our Supreme
Court held that whether biosolid use is a normal agricultural
operation was a pure question of law in Gilbert, we
hold that whether the spreading and storage of FPW is a
normal agricultural operation in this case is a question of
law which the trial court could decide on summary judgment.
their third issue, Appellants argue that the addition of a
storage tank on the Bowes Farm constituted a substantial
change under the RTFA. Again, there is no factual dispute
about the erection of the storage tank on the Bowes Farm.
Instead, the only question is whether the erection of the
storage tank was a "substantial change" under
section 954(a) that occurred within one year of the date on
which Appellants filed their original complaint. This is a
question of statutory interpretation. As such, it presents a
pure question of law which the trial court could decide on
determined that all three of Appellants' issues raise
pure questions of law (specifically questions of statutory
interpretation) which the trial court properly decided on
summary judgment, we turn to a de novo review of
those determinations. "When interpreting a statute, this
Court is guided by the Statutory Construction Act  of 1972,
1 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 1501-1991." CitiMortgage,
Inc. v. Barbezat, 131 A.3d 65, 73 (Pa. Super. 2016).
"Our paramount interpretative task is to give effect to
the intent of our General Assembly in enacting the particular
legislation under review." Egan v. Egan, 125
A.3d 792, 795 (Pa. Super. 2015) (internal alteration and
citation omitted). "[T]he best indication of the General
Assembly's intent in enacting a statute may be found in
its plain language[.]" Watts v. Manheim Twp. Sch.
Dist., 121 A.3d 964, 979 (Pa. 2015). We must construe
words and phrases in statutes "according to rules of
grammar and according to their common and approved
usage[.]" 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1903(a). "One way to
ascertain the plain meaning and ordinary usage of terms is by
reference to a dictionary definition." In re
Beyer, 115 A.3d 835, 839 (Pa. 2015) (citation omitted).
the plain language of a statue is ambiguous, we may consider,
inter alia, the object to be obtained and the
consequences of a particular interpretation. See 1
Pa.C.S.A. §§ 1921(c)(4) and 1921(c)(6). Moreover,
when interpreting a statute we must presume "[t]hat the
General Assembly [did] not intend a result that is absurd,
impossible of execution or unreasonable." 1 Pa.C.S.A.
§ 1922(1). We must also presume "[t]hat the General