Ninth Circuit sides with EPA in decades-long northern Idaho wetlands dispute
(CN) — The Ninth Circuit ruled Monday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has authority over a Idaho residential property the agency says contains protected wetlands.
The dispute dates back nearly 20 years when, in 2004, Chantell and Michael Sackett decided to purchase a soggy residential lot just 300 feet away from Priest Lake, one of Idaho’s largest and most tourist-trafficked lakes. The Sacketts had initially planned to build a home there and looked to prep the lot for construction, but a lengthy regulatory battle put their plans on ice.
Shortly after the Sacketts received local county building permits and started to fill the property with sand and gravel, they received an order from the EPA declaring that the property contained wetlands federally protected by the Clean Water Act. The EPA ordered the Sacketts to restore the property to its natural state and gave them five months to do or face fines of up to $40,000 per day.
Rather than comply with the order, the Sacketts took the EPA to court in 2008, claiming the agency's findings that the property was subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction were incorrect and unsupported.
A long and complex legal battle followed, complete with a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 that found the Sacketts could challenge the order after they struggled to get a hearing on the matter in Idaho. The case then went on for several more years in Idaho federal court.
Finally, more than 10 years after the lawsuit was filed, a judge ruled in favor of the EPA in 2019 and found that the agency was acting well within its authority when it determined the property contained protected wetlands.
The Sacketts appealed, and on Monday the Ninth Circuit once more sided with the EPA.
In a 36-page ruling, the Ninth Circuit panel found the Sacketts’ property shares enough pivotal environmental connections with Priest Lake for it to fall under the feds’ radar. After a series of hands-on environmental inspections of the property, the court found the EPA was right to believe that what happens on the Sacketts' property would influence the health of the lake and the court saw no reason to doubt the agency’s findings.
“The agency’s conclusion that the Sacketts’ wetlands, combined with the similarly situated Fen, ‘significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of’ Priest Lake was a reasonable one which we will not second-guess,” U.S. Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote for the panel.
The court ruled that this link creates a “nexus” between the residential property and the nearby lake that – from a regulatory stance – binds the two together and puts the Sacketts’ property squarely within the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald Gould and U.S. District Judge Jill Otake, sitting by designation from the District of Hawaii, joined Friedland's opinion. Bill Clinton appointed Gould and Donald Trump appointed Otake.
Tony Francois, one of the attorneys for the Sacketts, said Monday’s ruling affirming the EPA’s order against his client’s property is still being reviewed but that they maintain the EPA’s jurisdictional claims are without merit.
“We are reviewing the decision and conferring with the Sacketts, but we think that this decision is erroneous and will be assessing the best course forward to free the Sacketts’ property from EPA’s illegal assertion of Clean Water Act authority over it,” Francois said in an email.
While the EPA’s actions against the Sacketts’ property have received the legal thumbs-up from the appeals court, the issue may actually be moot. In March 2020, the agency sent the Sacketts a two-paragraph letter informing them it had decided against enforcing its order years before and assured them that the “EPA does not intend to issue a similar order to you in the future for this site.”
Representatives for the EPA did not immediately respond to request for comment by press time on Monday.