The Wetland Wars
When Mike and Chantell Sackett started building their home adjacent to a lake in scenic Idaho, the last thing on their minds was the USEPA. This wasn’t out of the ordinary, as their future home was located on a plot in the middle of an existing subdivision, on dry land, and not near any wetlands. It was a surprise then when the Sacketts were faced with a notice from the USEPA telling them to stop building on the land or face fines upwards of $30,000 per day.
The reason? The USEPA claimed the land was protected as wetlands and could not be developed. In their efforts to challenge the USEPA’s claims, the Sacketts were told “Forget it.” The mountainous amount of red tape between the Sacketts, the USEPA, and the courtroom was glaringly apparent. Not only did the Sacketts face obtaining a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, but they were also looking at tens of thousands of dollars in litigation and permit fees and the waiting period; years.
Although daunted by these barriers, the Sacketts weren’t going down without a fight. They pursued their property rights in court and argued that the USEPA’s orders should be subjected to scrutiny by the court system. Countering, the USEPA argued that by allowing federal orders to be contested in court, the judiciary would be slowing down the agency’s ability to fulfill its purpose; protecting the environment.
Eventually, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Sacketts prevailed in their arguments. The Court stated that landowners should be able to promptly file challenges to USEPA claims and that the amount of red tape facing the Sacketts was not justified.
Although a victory, the Justices stated this ruling only pertains to a landowner’s right to challenge USEPA actions under the Clean Water Act.
“The Court’s opinion is better than nothing, but only clarification of the reach of the Clean Water Act can rectify the underlying problem,” warned Justice Samuel Alito.
In supporting his claim, Justice Alito recently has called for congressional action on the issue; hoping they can specify the reach of the Clean Water Act and avoid future conflicts similar to those of the Sacketts.