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Photo Courtesy: http://www.peckycox.com

Property owners Michael and Chantell Sackett of Priest Lake, Idaho fought the law, and surprisingly, they won.  On March 21, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States – in a unanimous decision – sided with the property owners in determining that the property owners had the right to challenge an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliance order in the United States District Court.  Both the District Court and the Circuit Court had sided with EPA.

While the Court did not address the merits of the challenge to the EPA order – which found that the property owners had violated the Clean Water Act by filling in wetlands that were ‘navigable waters’ of the United States – it “conclude[d] that the compliance order in this case is final agency action for which there is no adequate remedy other than APA review, and that the Clean Water Act does not preclude that review.”

The Sacketts do not believe that their property should be subject to the Clean Water Act’s regulation of “navigable waters of the United States” as their property is not adjacent or contiguous to Priest Lake and “lies just north of Priest Lake, [and] is separated by several lots containing permanent structures.”  The EPA issued the compliance Order because the Sacketts had “filled in part of their lot with dirt and rock” in “preparation for constructing a house.”  The Sacketts filed suit in the District Court alleging a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s promise that government not deprive ‘life liberty or property’ of our citizens.

The availability of judicial review for the Sacketts – and other property owners – is a huge victory.  It substantially reduces the size the club that EPA can wield against property owners in the future.  Before this decision, a property owner would either have to comply with the Order or face penalties of $75,000 per day and wait until EPA decided to sue them in an enforcement proceeding.

The Court’s decision is hot news around the nation:

Lawrence Hurley, E & E News

ABA Journal (Court decries ‘notoriously vague’ Clean Water Act).

Washington Post (Supreme Court Allows Idaho Couple to Challenge EPA on Wetlands Ruling).

Federal Society Blog (Supreme Court Unanimously Rules to Protect Landowners’ Right to Take EPA to Court).

Natural Resource Defense Council

Inverse Condemnation Blog

The Foundry Blog