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Wed March 21, 2012
U.S. Supreme Court: Idaho couple can take EPA to court
A north Idaho couple is still a long way from breaking ground. But Mike and Chantell Sackett have won the right to go to court over their property in Priest Lake, Idaho.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Sacketts can challenge a decision by federal regulators that their lot is in a protected wetland. The ruling was relatively narrow.
Mike and Chantell Sackett imagine a rustic, three-bedroom A-frame, with views of Priest Lake and the rugged landscape that surrounds it. But the EPA told them in 2007 that because their plot is designated as a wetland, they could face steep fines for building.
The coupled hired engineers who dispute that finding. But they never had a chance to argue that point. In an interview last fall, Chantell Sackett said the case comes down to this exchange with a EPA manager.
"I said, 'So, why would I stop building my house? She said, 'Because we told you to.'"
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a unanimous decision saying there's nothing in the Clean Water Act that keeps the Sacketts from going to court against the EPA. Mike Sackett says he jumped for joy when he heard the news.
"It definitely is a victory for Chantell and I but beyond that it's a victory for everyone who owns property in this country," he says.
Major business groups, homebuilders and corporations joined the Sacketts in urging the court to make it easier to contest EPA compliance orders. But the agency and environmental groups argued a ruling in the Sacketts favor could gum up enforcement of clean water laws.
George Washington University law professor Robert Glicksman says the decision may push the EPA away from administrative orders and into other actions, such as warning letters.
"Bottom line under this statute, there's going to be a slowing down of the enforcement process," he says. "And therefore perhaps hold less of a threat over the heads of those alleged to have violated the statute."
The Supreme Court's decision was unanimous. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a separate opinion pointing out the court did not decide larger issues. Glicksman says the justices did not say the EPA violated the Sackett's constitutional right to due process.
"The decision was decided on narrower grounds than it might have been," he says.
As for the Sacketts, their half-acre lot is still covered in gravel, as it has been for five years. They'd like to negotiate a compromise with the EPA so they can build. Otherwise, they could have a new lawsuit over the question of whether their property is in a wetland.
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