Landowners and developers bogged in an EPA wetland determination were recently thrown a life line when the United States Supreme Court determined The Army Corps of Engineer’s (Corps) “jurisdictional determinations” (JD) regarding wetland designations are reviewable by the court. United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co. Inc.
Under the Clean Water Act (CWA) landowners and developers who do not have the proper permits can face severe criminal and civil penalties for releasing any pollutant into “the waters of the United States.” Anybody stuck wading through the permitting process will tell you it is difficult, time consuming, expensive, and may eventually prohibit the intended use of the property. Furthermore, there is yet to be a consensus on the definition or scope of the term “waters of the US”. Consequently, a landowners or developers may never be certain whether a permit is necessary before conducting any activity that may discharge a pollutant into a “water of the United States”.
To solve this dilemma, the Corps will graciously provide a “jurisdictional determination” (“JD”) designating whether a property (1) contains waters of the US; (2) does not contain waters of the US; or (3) “may” contain waters of the US. Any JD stating the property contains or does not contain waters of the US is binding on the Corps and landowner or developer for 5 years. The JD is also appealable to the EPA but not to the District Court.
Because the landowner was not allowed to appeal the determination beyond the EPA, the landowner was stuck with the decision unless the landowner decided to discharge the pollutant and argue in a government enforcement action that a permit was not necessary. The landowner or developer could also complete the permit process and have the determination judicially reviewed after the permit is issued or denied.
The Supreme Court determined that neither was a viable option for the landowner or developer. Federal law states that any agency decision that (1) concludes the agency’s decision making process and (2) legally affects the rights or obligations of another are appealable to the federal district court. The Supreme Court found that a Corps’ JD met both obligations.
First, the JD was issued after a fact-finding investigation and was described as a “final agency action” by the Corps.
Second, the JD had a legal binding effect for a period of 5 years which directly affected the legal rights and remedies of the landowner or developer.
Obviously any feelings of joy or celebration have to be tempered by the fact that any court to which the JD is appealed can determine the JD is correct. However, the life line gives the landowner or developer an opportunity to pull the decision from the very agency which made the original decision.
You can find the entire decision at:United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co.