On May 25, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency. The ruling will have far-reaching implications for landowners developing wetland properties.
In a significant legal development, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision with significant implications for landowners seeking to develop properties with wetlands. The case, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, examined the boundaries of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Below are the key takeaways of the case.
The Sackett case involved Michael and Chantell Sackett, who faced EPA regulations after the agency classified their Idaho property as protected wetlands. The EPA’s classification subjected their land to regulatory oversight under the CWA, prompting the Sacketts to challenge the agency’s jurisdiction. Their argument rested on the assertion that their property did not meet the criteria for EPA oversight.
The Court’s Ruling
In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito highlighted that the EPA’s authority under the CWA extends to “navigable waters” such as streams, rivers, oceans, and lakes. To fall within the EPA’s jurisdiction, wetlands must demonstrate a “continuous surface connection” to these navigable waters, making them effectively indistinguishable. However, the Court ultimately concluded that the wetlands on the Sacketts’ property were distinct and therefore outside the EPA’s regulatory reach.
Implications for Landowners
We perceive four important implications for landowners developing wetland properties following the Sackett ruling.
1. Clarity on EPA Jurisdiction: The Sackett ruling provides landowners with wetlands greater clarity on the extent of the EPA’s jurisdiction. It establishes that not all wetlands automatically fall under the agency’s oversight, emphasizing the need for a significant connection to navigable waters.
2. Protection of Property Rights: The decision is viewed as a win for property rights, as landowners have more certainty regarding their autonomy in developing wetland properties. The ruling reinforces the importance of constitutional separation of powers and respects the rights of landowners.
3. Prioritizing Individual Circumstances: The case highlights the significance of evaluating each wetland property individually to determine its relationship to navigable waters. Landowners can argue for exemptions from EPA jurisdiction if they can demonstrate that their wetlands lack the required continuous surface connection.
4. Future Regulations: The Sackett decision, along with previous rulings limiting EPA authority on climate change regulations, signals a narrowing of the agency’s reach. This could have broader implications for future environmental regulations and enforcement.
Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency is a landmark case that offers crucial insights for landowners seeking to develop properties with wetlands. The ruling clarifies the EPA’s jurisdiction under the CWA and reinforces the importance of evaluating the specific characteristics of wetland properties in relation to navigable waters. It upholds property rights and provides landowners with a clearer understanding of their autonomy in developing their wetland properties. However, due to the emphasis on individual circumstances laid out by the Court, it’s now more important than ever to seek legal guidance on your ability to develop wetland properties in light of the Sackett decision.
Founded in 1965, Messerli Kramer is a top-20 law firm in Minnesota, with offices in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Plymouth. The firm offers eight distinct practice areas across three divisions, including government relations, banking and finance, corporate and business law, commercial real estate, business litigation, collections and creditors’ remedies, divorce and family law, and estate planning. Visit messerlikramer.com for more information or call 612.672.3600.