Our View: Property rights upheld
Property owners won a significant victory last week from the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was how quickly limitations on property use by the federal Environmental Protection Agency can be challenged in court.
For decades, the EPA has been using particularly brutal tactics against property owners. The EPA has claimed that someone's property is a "wetland" — often absurdly defined — that severely restricts development. Appeals by the property owners could take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars first to wind through the EPA process before ending up in court. The EPA, of course, has all the time in the world and unlimited funds from taxpayers.
In the March 21 ruling in Sackett vs. EPA, the court ruled in a case concerning Idaho property owners Mike and Chantelle Sackett. According to Reason magazine, in 2007, "The EPA informed the Sacketts that they suspected they were building on wetlands and had to cease work immediately. The Sacketts were stunned because their property was a completely landlocked lot within an existing subdivision. When Chantelle Sackett asked for evidence, the EPA pointed her to the National Fish and Wildlife Wetlands Inventory, which showed them that their lot ... was not on an existing wetland."
The EPA still issued what's known as a compliance order, which said that the Sacketts were in violation of the Clean Water Act and subject to fines of up to $37,500 a day.
The court said the Sacketts could pursue their lawsuit without first going through the EPA. It was a great victory for the 14th Amendment requirement that the government shall not "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."
"We're very happy with the decision," said John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University School of Law and founding director of the school's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, which was involved in the case on the side of the Sacketts. "I'm particularly pleased that the ruling was 9-0. I'm hoping that it means the EPA has gotten the message and can stop oppressing like petty tyrants from their offices in Washington, D.C. The [lower] courts basically have been given marching orders" to stop the oppression of property owners.
He said that property rights and due process "don't seem to be important to the EPA. Even when the circuit courts ruled against them, EPA kept doing it." He said the EPA strategy was to draw matters out for many years, costing property owners hundreds of thousands of dollars, until the property owners dropped their cases or went broke. "Now, the Supreme Court's decision provides an early trigger. As soon as the EPA gives you that letter" — demanding that development be halted — "you can challenge that letter in court."
Protecting the environment is important, but the EPA has become a typical tyrannical, centralized agency. The Declaration of Independence said the British crown "erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance."
Now it's our own government doing that to us. Although this is a landmark decision, Congress needs to take further action and rein in this rogue agency.