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High court takes Idaho property case

Couple says wetlands decisions should be appealable in court

A North Idaho couple’s fight with the federal government over whether their Priest Lake property has wetlands will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, Supreme Court justices added Sackett v. EPA to their caseload for the coming fall term. National property rights groups are watching the case, saying it could give landowners the ability to challenge federal wetland designations.

In 2007, Michael and Chantell Sackett were ordered to stop excavating a lot near Priest Lake after officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told them the site contained wetlands. The Sacketts, who planned to build a home on the property, hired their own experts to dispute the EPA’s wetland determination.

Mike Sackett said the 0.6-acre lot is part of a platted subdivision, bordered by neighboring residences and a county road. The property has some alder trees, but doesn’t have cattails or swampy ground, Sackett said. Another home had already sprung up between his property and Priest Lake.

“We hired a soil expert and a biologist,” Mike Sackett said, “and we have their certification that it’s not a wetland.”

But the Sacketts had no recourse available through the court system, said Damien Schiff, senior attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif.-based property rights group that is representing the Sacketts.

The Sacketts either had to apply for a permit to fill in wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act or wait for the EPA to sue them for noncompliance in federal court, Schiff said.

Both options are costly and risky for landowners, he said. Clean Water Act violations can carry fines of up to $25,000 per day.

The Sacketts want the ability to take their dispute through the courts, Schiff said. That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear – whether the Sacketts and other property owners can challenge the federal government’s wetland compliance order in court.

The National Association of Homebuilders filed legal briefs supporting the Sacketts’ position. Fox News featured the couple in a broadcast last year.

“It’s a case that has garnered a lot of attention because it’s a case that could happen to you,” Schiff said. “The Sacketts are not big developers. They just wanted a family home.”

The U.S. Department of Justice declined comment Tuesday.