Located in the Idaho panhandle is scenic Priest Lake which is known for its great lake trout fishing as well as it beautiful setting. It’s an ideal location for anyone wanting to build a home and settle down.
So were the dreams of Mike and Chantell Sackett who purchased nearly two-thirds of an acre in a new development. They set about making their plans for their dream home. Before they could start building the house, they spent three days hauling in dirt to fill in areas on the lot and get everything leveled off.
Suddenly, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers showed up on the site and ordered the couple to halt all activity. It turns out the agencies suddenly declared the land in the new subdivision was a wetland. Six months later they received a compliance order from the EPA informing them that the lot was a wetland and that they had to restore it back to its natural condition. If they did not comply with the order, the EPA notice said that they could be fined up to $37,500 per day.
The Sacketts tried to appeal the order but were told by the EPA that decisions involving wetlands are not open to appeal. They took their case to the courts and all of the courts up to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that landowners had no right to appeal an EPA order involving wetlands until fines have been assessed. The case then went to the US Supreme Court who just released their ruling on the case.
In the majority decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the Sacketts should have the right to file a civil suit against the EPA under the Administrative Procedures Act since the EPA order is a final one and that the couple were facing the huge fines. He also wrote that the Clean Water Act, which is what the EPA was using to force the Sacketts to restore their property back to the original condition, is not exempt from judicial review.
Justice Samuel Alito added that allowing property owners to file civil suits against the EPA was better than nothing. He also urged that Congress review the Clean Water Act and come up with new legislation that more clearly defines the extent and power of the Act when used against landowners such as the Sacketts.
Damien Schiff, the Sackett’s attorney praised the Supreme Court ruling saying that it demonstrates that the EPA is not above the law as they seem to consider themselves to be and that private citizens do in fact have a legal recourse against them when they believe they are being treated unfairly.
In all of the articles I read on this case, no one addressed my first question. If the area was a wetland to begin with, then how could the developer of the area rightfully sell lots for people to build on? Could the Sacketts go after the person or company that sold them the lot and get their money back because of the EPA order? And lastly, why would anyone want to build a house on wetland that has to be filled in first? If the ground in a natural wetland, you are bound to have issues with the underlying soil settling which can present serious issues for any home built on it.
So personally, I question the Sackett’s judgment to build there in the first place, but am still glad that the Supreme Court ruled in their favor and that the couple now has an avenue to challenge the EPA order.