Wednesday December 14, 2022

Yale Environment 360

In 2007 an Idaho couple, Mike and Chantell Sackett, bought a building lot across the road from a wetlands complex that drains into a creek and then into Priest Lake, with plans to build a new home. They began to fill in a spot on the property with gravel and sand until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stopped them under authority of the Clean Water Act, claiming it was a wetland adjacent to the lake. They were told to remove the fill and reclaim the site by fencing it off for three growing seasons. Failure to do so would cost them more than $30,000 in fines each day.

The couple refused and sued the EPA in 2008, arguing that their property was not wet. It touched off a lengthy legal saga that continues and has now come before the U.S. Supreme Court for the second time. The case first reached the Supreme Court in 2012 on the question of whether the Sacketts had standing to challenge the EPA in federal court. They did, the court ruled.

When their suit came again before a federal court in 2019, the judge ruled the EPA could require the permit, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision. The Sacketts, whose case has become a cause célèbre for the property rights movement, appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments as the first case of this term. A decision is expected next year, and it may clearly define what a wetland is — for good or ill, depending on one’s perspective.

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