WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has come forcefully down on the side of an Idaho couple in its fight against the Environmental Protection Agency, unanimously ruling Wednesday that the couple can challenge an EPA order to stop construction of their home on property designated a wetland.
Mike and Chantell Sackett bought their land near a scenic lake for $25,000, but when they decided to build a property there in 2007, the EPA ordered a halt, saying the Clean Water Act requires that wetlands not be disturbed without a permit.
They've been fighting for the right to challenge the decision in court for several years, and facing millions of dollars in fines over the land.
The couple complained there was no reasonable way to challenge the order, and noted they don't know why the EPA concluded there are wetlands on their lot, which is surrounded by a residential neighborhood with sewer lines and homes.
In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court ruled the EPA cannot impose fines that could be as much as $75,000 a day without giving property owners the ability to challenge its actions.
The ruling allows the couple to challenge the EPA head-on in court, but the real battle begins now. The case has brought attention to the EPA's reach. While the court only allowed a challenge to be brought, in a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito noted that the law allowing EPA to demand compliance is overly broad.
"The reach of the Clean Water Act is notoriously unclear. Any piece of land that is wet at least part of the year is in danger of being classified by EPA employees as wetlands covered by the act, and according to the federal government, if property owners begin to construct a home on a lot that the agency thinks possesses the requisite wetness, the property owners are at the agency's mercy," Alito wrote.
"The court's decision provides a modest measure of relief," he added. "But the combination of the uncertain reach of the Clean Water Act and the draconian penalties imposed for the sort of violations alleged in this case still leaves most property owners with little practical alternative but to dance to the EPA's tune. Real relief requires Congress to do what it should have done in the first place: provide a reasonably clear rule regarding the reach of the Clean Water Act."
The couple, which termed the battle "David versus Goliath," has earned support from several lawmakers who want to reduce the grasp of the EPA on private property. Reps. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, all joined the Chantells and other couples in a forum last fall about limiting EPA authority.
Labrador congratulated the Sacketts after the ruling.
"The federal government is an intimidating force against ordinary citizens, and standing up to its bureaucracy requires extraordinary bravery. Thanks to the unwavering courage and selfless sacrifice of the Sacketts, Americans everywhere will be guaranteed the right to appeal a decision imposed by a government agency. Their victory also safeguards individual property rights against the encroachment of the federal government, a fundamental assurance of our Constitution," he said.