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High court backs Idahoans

Priest Lake property owners can challenge EPA order

A Priest Lake, Idaho, couple has prevailed in a property rights case involving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided unanimously with Mike and Chantell Sackett, who object to an EPA order that blocked construction of their home near Priest Lake and threatened fines of more than $30,000 a day.

The agency said part of the property was a wetland that could not be disturbed without a permit. The property has sat undisturbed since the EPA ordered a halt to the work in 2007.

Property rights advocates and businesses supporting the Sacketts had been hoping for a broader ruling undercutting the EPA’s authority.

In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court rejected the EPA’s argument that allowing property owners quick access to courts to contest orders like the one issued to the Sacketts would compromise the agency’s ability to deal with water pollution.

“Compliance orders will remain an effective means of securing prompt voluntary compliance in those many cases where there is no substantial basis to question their validity,” Scalia said.

In this case, the couple objected to the determination that their two-third acre lot contained wetlands that are regulated by the Clean Water Act, and complained there was no reasonable way to challenge the order without risking fines that can mount quickly.

Scalia, reading a summary of his opinion in court, noted that the Sacketts have never “seen a ship or other vessel cross their yard.”

The Sacketts now will be able to argue in federal court that their land should not be subject to EPA regulation, said their lawyer, Damien Schiff.

“First of all, it goes without saying that we are very pleased with the court’s decision today,” said Schiff, of the Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented the Sacketts. “This strikes a great victory for property owners of this country.”

In a statement, the Sacketts praised the court for “affirming that we have rights, and that the EPA is not a law unto itself.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which sided with EPA in this case, said the decision was relatively narrow. The court “did not open the Clean Water Act up to abuse by polluters by gutting EPA’s ability to issue these orders. And it didn’t question their validity,” said Jon Devine, a senior attorney at NRDC.

The EPA issues nearly 3,000 administrative compliance orders a year that call on alleged violators of environmental laws to stop what they’re doing and repair the harm they’ve caused. Major business groups, homebuilders, road builders and agricultural interests all have joined the Sacketts in urging the court to make it easier to contest EPA compliance orders issued under several environmental laws.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a separate opinion that the only issue decided by the court today is the Sacketts’ ability to contest the EPA finding that their property is subject to the Clean Water Act. The court did not decide larger issues, Ginsburg said.

“On that understanding, I join the court’s opinion,” she said.

In another separate opinion, Justice Samuel Alito called on Congress to clear up confusion over the reach of the Clean Water Act. Alito said that federal regulators could assert authority over any property that is wet for even part of the year, not just rivers and streams.

The court’s opinion “is better than nothing, but only clarification of the reach of the Clean Water Act can rectify the underlying problem,” Alito said.

In 2005, the Sacketts paid $23,000 for a 0.63-acre lot near scenic Priest Lake. They decided to start building a modest, three-bedroom home early in 2007.

They had filled part of the property with rocks and soil, in preparation for construction, when federal officials showed up and ordered a halt in the work.

The EPA told the couple — and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed — that they could not get direct court review of EPA’s claim that their two-thirds of an acre parcel is wetlands, and that they must obey an EPA compliance order or face fines.

Seven months after the visit, the EPA issued a compliance order, telling the couple to restore the property or risk fines of up to $32,500 per day. The Sacketts wanted a day in court to argue that their lot wasn’t a wetland.

The decision Wednesday was not the final victory: it simply gives the Sacketts the legal ability to argue in federal court that their lot is not in fact a wetland.

“This has put us through a nightmare that no one should ever have to go through in this country,” Mike Sackett said. “It’s a big step … so that we can get on with our life.”

Sackett promised that he would continue the legal fight to build his dream home.

“We didn’t come this far not to be able to build our home,” he said. “This whole thing is based on principles.”

The case is Sackett v. EPA, 10-1062.

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