Court backs Idaho couple in battle with EPA

An Idaho couple facing ruinous fines for attempting to build a home on private property that the federal government considered protected wetlands may challenge an order from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a unanimous decision.

The case was considered the most significant property rights case on the high court’s docket this year, with the potential to change the balance of power between landowners and the EPA in disputes over land use, development and the enforcement of environmental regulations.

Critics called the EPA action a clear example of overreach, as the property in question was a small vacant lot in the middle of an established residential subdivision in the Idaho Panhandle. The government argued that allowing EPA compliance orders to be challenged in court could severely delay actions needed to prevent imminent ecological disasters.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said that Michael and Chantell Sackett are entitled to appeal the EPA order, rejecting the agency’s argument that allowing landowners timely challenges to its decisions would undermine its ability to protect sensitive wetlands.

“The [law’s] presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all,” Mr. Scalia said in the decision. “And there is no reason to think that the Clean Water Act was uniquely designed to enable the strong-arming of regulated parties into ‘voluntary compliance’ without the opportunity for judicial review — even judicial review of the question whether the regulated party is within the EPA’s jurisdiction.”

The EPA issues nearly 3,000 administrative compliance orders a year that call on suspected 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 came out against the EPA in the case.

Mr. Sackett said the Supreme Court ruling affirmed his belief that “the EPA is not a law unto itself.”

“The EPA used bullying and threats of terrifying fines, and has made our life hell for the past five years,” Mr. Sackett said in a statement. “As this nightmare went on, we rubbed our eyes and started to wonder if we were living in some totalitarian country. Now the Supreme Court has come to our rescue and reminded the EPA — and everyone - that this is still America.”

Congressional Republicans, who had rallied to the Sacketts’ cause, called the Supreme Court ruling a clear rebuke to President Obama and his environmental agenda.

“This decision delivers a devastating blow to the Obama administration’s ‘War on Western Jobs,’” said Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and chairman of the Senate Western Caucus. “This victory by one Western couple against a massive Washington bureaucracy will inspire others to challenge this administration’s regulatory overreach.”

Building on a ‘wetland’

The case stemmed from the couple’s purchase of a 0.63-acre lot for $23,000 near Priest Lake, Idaho, in 2005. The Sacketts had begun to lay gravel on the land, located in a residential neighborhood, when they were hit by an EPA compliance order informing them that the property had been designated a wetland under the Clean Water Act.

The Sacketts were ordered to stop grading their property and were told that they would face fines of up to $75,000 per day if they did not return the parcel to its original state. When the Sacketts attempted to contest the order, the agency denied their request for a hearing.

Justice Scalia noted that the Sacketts’ property bore little resemblance to any popular conception of a wetland, protected or not.

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

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