By Mannix Porterfield
Don’t fence me in, a lament from the Old West, is taking on a new meaning in the West Virginia Legislature.
Runaway livestock pose one issue before Senate Agriculture Chairman Ron Miller’s committee, and another one deals with responsibility for the fences themselves.
“We’re working on a fencing law,” says Miller, D-Greenbrier, himself a farmer.
“It’s still in the process. Basically, it talks about who is responsible for line fences. In our code right now, every time there’s a fence change in style, there has to be a statutory change.”
Rather than create a law change in itself, Miller says the thinking in this session is to place all of that into rules.
When farmers moved into tensile fences, for example, those consisting of a single strand of metal, Miller explained, lawmakers had to change the State Code to permit their usage.
“Now instead of having the responsibility for everybody to pay on a fence, you have to fence in, rather than fence out,” he said.
“It’s a subtle change, but it’s an important change. If I raise cattle, and you raise pumpkins, it is my responsibility to build the fence.
Now, if you start raising cattle, then you have to come back and pay me for the fence that has been built. We have to share the costs.”
Miller describes the move as a cleanup of language, the intent being to lessen the role courts play in land squabbles.
“We had a mediation process rather than having to go to the courts,” he said. “You always have the right to go to court. But it takes it somewhat out of the courts.”
Miller is running a trespass bill a second time this year, almost identical to the one that expired in the House Judiciary Committee on the final day of last year’s session, hung up as lawmakers scrambled to agree on the texting/cell phone matter.
“This simplifies the section of the code dealing with animals getting out,” he said.
For a variety of reasons, animals often stray beyond their intended borders.
“Sometimes, the law doesn’t mess with them,” Miller said, “because there are no fines involved.”
If lightning strikes a tree and it topples across a fence, creating a gaping hole that provides a horse or steer room to escape, Miller explained, no fines are levied, since the owner cannot be blamed.
“Now if he’s negligent, and I sometimes am with my fencing, then he can be held liable,” the senator said. “That’s criminal liability.”
Miller said the idea is to take several pages existing within the State Code and condense them into a more simple rule, abandoning, in some parts, archaic language.
“In the old code section, it refers to folks from Pennsylvania and Maryland as ‘aliens,’ and things like that,” Miller, D-Greenbrier, said. “We are reducing all of that down.”
Failure to maintain a fence, however, absent any act of God, puts the onus on the back of the farm owner, exposing him to a penalty.
Currently, the fine is $5.
“If your horse gets out and is running down the street, because somebody knocked your fence down, they don’t even go after that, because it is hardly worth it,” he said.
In matters of negligence, the proposed legislation would impose stiffer fines.
If the farmer gets into a pattern of runaway livestock, misdemeanors can start to add up.
“It’s a problem,” Miller said of livestock on the loose. “This is a cleanup, an attempt to straighten out the code and make it clear. A lot of our agriculture laws are just not clear.”
Miller’s committee appears to have its work cut out in this session, with some time likely to be devoted to the chicken litter controversy.
Another matter up for discussion is to update the law that governs cooperatives.
“The law is just so archaic,” he said. “No one can figure it out. It says in our code that you’ve got to report to the chairman of the Agriculture Department at West Virginia University if you form a co-op.
That’s crazy. So, we’re cleaning that up. We’re getting the secretary of state involved in it. We’re reducing it to a certain number to mean a co-op. This comes as a direct result of small farmers, in Monroe County particularly.”