US Supreme Court to Balance Between Protecting the Environment and Property Rights
According the Los Angeles Times, the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Mike and Chantell Sackett, an Idaho couple who wanted to live on scenic Priest Lake in that state but, because they couldn't afford it, they instead bought a residential lot across the road that offered a distant view of the water.
In preparation to build their dream home, they cleared the land and laid gravel and thus began the legal quagmire they find themselves in today—four years later.
The Sackets are at battle with the Environmental Protection Agency over whether their dry lot is a protected "wetlands" and possibly off-limits for building.
In November 2007, the Sacketts were given an "administrative compliance order" by three EPA officials telling them they must stop work, remove the gravel and "restore" the land by adding new plants suitable for a wetland. If they maintained the land in its natural state for at least three years, they were told, they could then seek a permit to build, a process that would cost about $200,000.
"We were blindsided," Mike Sackett said. "And if we didn't comply, we were subject to fines of up to $37,500 per day."
Rather than comply with the order, the Sacketts sought a hearing to contest it before a federal judge in Idaho. The Sackets insisted the half-acre lot was not wetlands but the judge turned down their hearing request, which they appealed but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco affirmed the judge’s decision.
Agreeing with the EPA, the 9th Circuit judges said the compliance order was like a warning to the landowners that they were violating the law. They weren't entitled to a hearing under the law until the agency had imposed a fine on them, the appeals court said.
This ruling, the Sacket’s lawyer said, put the couple in an "impossible situation" because they either have to do “nothing with their lot for three years, or start building and face potential fines running into millions of dollars.”
The Sackets therefore decided to appeal to the Supreme Court, which will hear the case Monday.
The issue in the case is not whether or not the land the Sackets bought is “wetlands” under federal law but to decide whether landowners are entitled to a hearing before a judge when they are confronted by the EPA.
The case is being closely watched by developers and environmentalists because those on the right are depicting the EPA as an out-of-control agency while environmental lawyers fear a decision in the couple's favor could undercut the agency's ability to stop polluters.Continued on the next page