WOTUS, We Hardly Knew Ye

Posted on March 2, 2017 by Rick Glick

With a flourish of his pen, on February 28, President Trump signed an Executive Order  aimed at dismantling the ill-fated Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.  The rule was the latest attempt by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to bring some clarity to the limits of federal authority under the Clean Water Act.  Clarity in this area has been elusive, and though many were unhappy with the rule, no one benefits from the current state of confusion.

The uncertainty begins with the Clean Water Act, which Congress said applies to “navigable” waters and then helpfully defined navigable to mean “waters of the United States.”  The agencies and the courts have struggled ever since to figure out when wetlands are jurisdictional.  The courts have not helped.  In Rapanos v. U.S., a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court found the Government had overreached, but could not agree as to why.  Justice Scalia, writing for a plurality of the Court, would limit jurisdiction to “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water,” excluding intermittent or ephemeral channels and most drainage ditches.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy invoked a “significant nexus” test whereby jurisdiction should apply if a hydrologic connection between a wetland and a navigable water could be demonstrated.  Later courts have tried to follow both tests, with mixed results.

Justice Scalia’s test is a lot easier to apply:  If you can see the water or the land goes squish under your feet, there is jurisdiction.  Justice Kennedy’s test requires a case-by-case review and exercise of professional judgment.  The WOTUS rule focused more on the Kennedy test to indicate how the Government would make its jurisdictional determinations.

Without getting into detail that now is mostly moot, the rule generated about one million public comments and lots of litigation—17 District Court complaints and 23 petitions to various Circuit Courts of Appeal.  It seemed certain that the Supreme Court would get another opportunity to declare the law of WOTUS.

No doubt the Court will get that chance, but in a drastically different context.  The president’s Executive Order has no legal effect, other than to get the process started.  The Obama Administration’s WOTUS rule was subject to years of notice and comment before adoption, and the Trump Administration’s revisions will have to go through the same process.  No doubt they will be as controversial and will also be fiercely litigated.  That will take a very long time to play out, and won’t likely be completed during a Trump first term. 

In the meantime, property owners still would like to develop their property, and the Government still has to apply the law.  The Trump Executive Order gives direction that a new WOTUS rule should follow the Scalia test, but that doesn’t reflect the way jurisdictional determinations are made today.  Suffice to say that the Kennedy significant nexus test will still be in play for the near to intermediate term, and a prudent developer will include a wetlands determination as a key part of the due diligence for the project.

The “Significance” of the “Nexus”: Latest (Last?) Precon Decision on Wetlands Jurisdiction

Posted on March 17, 2015 by Margaret (Peggy) N. Strand

In a decision that may end a 13-year battle over wetlands jurisdiction, the Fourth Circuit on March 10 upheld the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers findings that a 4.8 acre wetland had a “significant nexus” to navigable waters under the Clean Water Act. Of importance to future challenges, the court deferred to the Corps’ rather ordinary wetlands evidence, despite contrary evidence from a developer of a proposed planned unit development in Chesapeake, Virginia. 

The Precon case spanned the 2006 Supreme Court decision in Rapanos v. United States, when Justice Kennedy introduced the jurisdictional standard of “significant nexus.”  For a refresher, a “significant nexus” between wetlands and navigable waters exists “if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’”. For previous posts concerning CWA jurisdiction, see here and here. The Fourth Circuit previously had found a “nexus” between Precon’s 4.8 acre wetland and navigable waters seven miles away and allowed aggregation of the Precon’s 4.8 wetland acres with a region of 448 “similarly situated” wetlands, but remanded for application of the “significant” aspect of Justice Kennedy’s test.

CWA jurisdictional groupies watched the Precon case as among the first to involve evidence demonstrating jurisdiction under the “significant nexus” test and the only decision to be remanded for a showing of “significance.”  Evidence was presented, experts disagreed, and the court deferred to the Corps.  On the key point of “significance,” the decision found neither arbitrary nor capricious the Corps’ findings of water flow. In addition, the court deferred to the Corps’ showing of wetland functions in relation to the navigable water, particularly water quality (dissolved oxygen) impairments to the Northwest River, which are reduced by the carbon sequestration of retained organic matter by the aggregated wetlands. The court also found credible the Corps’ qualitative evidence of habitat use by common species (deer, squirrels, amphibians).

The take-away:  If a “nexus” is “significant” based on a showing of general relationship of wetland functions to downstream receiving water impairments and common wildlife (wetland and non-wetland) usage, it is hard to imagine a wetland failing to be held jurisdictional when aggregation is allowed.  Counsel for Precon indicates it will seek en banc rehearing and may seek certiorari, so there may be yet another chapter to this saga.  

Don’t Even Try to Bring THAT Kind of Regulatory Takings Case

Posted on May 16, 2014 by Margaret (Peggy) N. Strand

In 2012 and 2013, the Supreme Court issued several decisions recognizing claims for regulatory takings that observers believed might indicate a shift toward greater protection of private property rights. In Arkansas Game and Fish Comm’n v. United States, 568 U.S. ___ (No. 11-597, Dec. 4, 2012), the Supreme Court upheld a claim for a temporary taking based on flooding associated with a Corps of Engineers project, discussed here. And in Horne v. Department of Agriculture, 569 U.S. ___ (No. 12-123, June 10, 2013), under very unusual circumstances, the Supreme Court allowed the takings claim to be presented as a defense to government regulatory action. The 2013 decision in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, 570 U.S. ___ (No. 11-1447, June 25, 2013), concerned mitigation requirements associated with land development in Florida, discussed here and here. Shift in judicial approach to greater protection of property rights? Maybe not. 

During the same time period, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that a landowner could not claim a taking arising out of denial by the Corps of an application for approval of a wetland mitigation bank. Hearts Bluff Game Ranch, Inc. v. United States, 669 F.3d 1326 (Fed. Cir. 2012). This lesser-known decision addresses a fundamental aspect of takings law — what is the property interest that is protected by the takings clause? Apparently it matters whether you have a permit denial (and can seek compensation) or a denial of a government approval of a benefit (which confers no compensable property right). 

A wetlands mitigation bank is a property where wetlands have been enhanced or restored or otherwise improved. The mitigation bank credits generated by those efforts are available as compensatory mitigation for impacts authorized under Corps permits issued under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Unlike dredge or fill of wetlands or streams that require a Section 404 permit, the mitigation bank is not approved by permit. Rather, under regulations, the mitigation bank is reviewed by the Corps, EPA and other federal and state agencies, known as the Interagency Review Team (IRT). Subject to IRT review, the Corps and the mitigation banker sign a Mitigation Banking Instrument (MBI) that approves the mitigation bank. The MBI contains terms such as the size and nature of the wetland enhancement or restoration that will occur on the bank property. The MBI also establishes the credits for the bank, i.e., the marketable element that can be sold to a wetland permit applicant who needs to provide compensatory mitigation. 

Despite this seemingly complicated process, the situation can be simplified in this way:  Mr. Black, owner of Blackacre, wants to fill wetlands on his property to build homes. Mr. Black must obtain a Section 404 permit from the Corps and likely will need mitigation to offset what he fills. Ms. White, owner of Whiteacre, wants to restore and enhance wetlands on her property, and use that enhancement as a basis to offer credits for wetland compensation to those who need to mitigate their impacts to wetlands, like Mr. Black. Ms. White needs to go through the mitigation banking regulatory process for her approvals. Her MBI will authorize the planned “ecological development” of her property. 

Comparing the Hearts Bluff decision to more standard regulatory takings law, if Mr. Black’s application for a permit is denied, he may be able to sue the United States for compensation for the taking of his property. If Ms. White’s application for approval of the mitigation bank is denied, the Federal Circuit says she has no compensable property interest. 

Hearts Bluff sought approval for a 4000 acre mitigation bank in Texas. The land was located where the planned Marvin Nichols Reservoir might be sited, a proposed reservoir that has a long history in Texas. Hearts Bluff also sued in state court. After consulting with the state and evaluating the potential site, the Corps denied the application for mitigation bank approval, citing reasons that do not appear in the takings decisions. 

Any regulatory takings claim faces a number of hurdles. What is unusual about Hearts Bluff is that the court held that the company had no “cognizable property interest.” 

The Federal Circuit focused on its two-part test for evaluating takings claims.  “First, as a threshold matter, the court determines whether the claimant has identified a cognizable Fifth Amendment property interest that is asserted to be the subject of the taking. . . .Second, if the court concludes that a cognizable property interest exists, it determines whether that property interest was ‘taken.’” Id. at 1329. The court stopped at step one, finding that there was no property interest. 

The court adopted the government’s position that Hearts Bluff “was never entitled to operate a mitigation bank solely by virtue of its ownership of the land and that it did not have a property right in access to the mitigation banking program because the program is entirely a creature of the government and subject to pervasive and discretionary government control.” Id. at 1330. The mitigation banking program, said the court, “is run exclusively by the Corps, subject to its pervasive control, and no landowner can develop a mitigation bank absent Corps approval. Mitigation banking in its entirety would not exist without the enabling government regulations. Under our precedent, therefore, the Corps’ discretionary denial of access into the Corps program cannot be a cognizable property interest.” Id. at 1331.  

The court relied on precedent where the claimant owned property but not the particular right to use the property as it asserted. For example, in Air Pegasus of D.C., Inc. v. United States, 424 F.3d 1206 (Fed. Cir. 2005), the court had held that a helicopter operator had no takings claim when a federal “flight restriction” essentially destroyed its business. There are not many cases in this area, and many of them deal with personal property, rather than real property. These decisions do not turn on the distinction between a government permit and a government benefit, but rather delve into whether the claimant’s property carried with it the right to pursue the particular “end goal.”

In short, while Hearts Bluff certainly owned the real property, its ability to “develop” it as a mitigation bank was not a “right” that could be taken by the Corps’ denial of its application. It was not such a right because the government essentially created the end use (mitigation banking). 

It’s been a long time since my law school days, but the “bundle of sticks” that I was taught constitute real property rights should include the right to seek governmental approval for the owner’s preferred uses, regardless of whether the government program is new, old, established by regulations, or described in a statute.  The government does not always commit a taking by denying such uses, but it is troubling that property rights should depend on which government program is involved.

“Waters of the U. S.” - What’s Not to Understand?

Posted on November 26, 2013 by Rick Glick

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers continue their ongoing effort to bring clarity to the tangled mess wrought by the Supreme Court in Rapanos v. U. S. In that 2006 case, a fractured Court issued five separate opinions on the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act.  Congress didn’t help in the first place by extending such jurisdiction to “navigable” waters, defined in the Act as “waters of the United States” without further elucidation.  EPA and the Corps have developed new rules now under review by the Office of Management and Budget prior to release for public comment.

The agencies and the courts have long struggled with a workable definition of “waters of the United States,” particularly in the context of filling wetlands.  The Supreme Court previously held that wetlands adjacent to navigable waters are jurisdictional because of their ecological connection to those waters, but isolated wetlands in the Pacific Flyway are not.  In Rapanos, a four member plurality in an opinion by Justice Scalia limited jurisdiction to areas that are wet with flowing or standing water on a more or less regular basis, which would exclude many areas that appear dry but meet the agency definition of wetlands.  The determinative fifth vote, however, was from Justice Kennedy, who applied a different test, requiring only a “significant nexus” between the navigable waterways and the wetland. 

Since Rapanos, many courts have been unable to discern guiding precedent and adopted hybrids of the Scalia and Kennedy tests. In the meantime, the agencies on two occasions have adopted guidance to help permit writers and the regulated community recognize jurisdictional wetlands.  The agencies’ latest effort would go beyond guidance to rules having the force of law. 

The rules define jurisdictional waters of the United States to include categories of wet areas, such as tributaries of navigable waterways.  The rules would exclude drainage ditches excavated on uplands or other artificially wet areas, such as waste treatment systems or irrigated lands.  The expectation is that by establishing by rule categories of jurisdictional waters that per se have a significant nexus to navigable waters, the cost of permitting and litigation would decrease, while certainty for land developers would increase. 

The rules are based on a report by EPA staff that compiles and synthesizes peer-reviewed scientific research on the relationship between tributaries, wetlands and open waters.  The report is under review by EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and EPA has said the rules would not be released for public comment until that review is complete. 

Still, the fact that the rules were developed before the report and Science Advisory Board review is complete has drawn criticism from Congressional Republicans.  They charge that the report is just window dressing for EPA doing what it wants.  In a letter dated November 13 to EPA, the Senate and House Western caucuses urge EPA to withdraw the rule “based on the devastating economic impacts that a federal takeover of state waters would have.”

The prospect of having rules in place to define jurisdictional waters is, on its face, a positive development because of the uncertainty that now pervades this area.  However, in addition to Congressional resistance, the goal of avoiding litigation will likely prove elusive.  If challenged, the agencies will be entitled to a measure of deference once the rules are adopted, but we can safely predict there will be many challenges.  

Once the rules clear OMB and the Science Advisory Board, they will be published for public comment.  Watch this space for updates.

Finding Common Ground

Posted on August 1, 2013 by Irma S. Russell

Last month’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District has been the subject of intense dialogue among ACOEL members and environmental lawyers around the country. The Court’s holding that the Water District violated the Fifth Amendment just compensation clause extended the Nollan and Dolan standard to the context of denial of a permit application and raised the need for land use agreements that achieve acceptable results for all involved – a tall order.

A recently published book provides a resource for lawyers and students working in the land use arena. Land In Conflict: Managing and Resolving Land Use Disputes (Lincoln Institute, 2013) by Sean Nolon, Ona Ferguson, and Patrick Field, focuses on land use disputes over the full range of zoning, planning, and development and provides a primer for professionals on all sides of land use issues, including local planners, proponents of projects, developers and their financiers. Parties involved in land use permitting can draw on the book to consider how their conduct and orientation facilitate (or, perhaps, impair) the ability of the parties to find common ground. This book provides insights regarding the public’s right to access to information about land use projects. Both proponents and opponents to projects will gain ideas from this book on interacting effectively, whether this is in the filing process of proposing or opposing a project before a local board or department with land use authority. The orientation of this work is to focus on reconciling the interests of all legitimate stakeholders in the hope of producing, as the authors note, more durable outcomes than typically achieved in the adjudicatory approach. This mutual-gains approach has wider application than land use. It is guided by principles that move decision making away from the impasse of rights rhetoric toward decisions that seek the best alternatives for all stakeholders.

Taking the Fifth on the Fifth’s Taking Clause

Posted on June 26, 2013 by Robert M Olian

…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Everyone understands the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause to mean, at a minimum, the government cannot force the transfer of private property to the government even for a manifestly governmental purpose (e.g. a highway right of way, or a new airport runway), without compensating the property owner.

Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision in Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District is the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings to extend the protections of the Takings Clause beyond the obvious governmental requisitioning of private property. That’s “latest,” not “last”.

Nollan v. California Coastal Commission (1987) and Dolan v. City of Tigard (1994), combine to set forth the Court’s requirements for an “essential nexus” and “rough proportionality” between conditions on land use development and the government’s underlying objectives in the permit scheme to which the property owner is subjected. Absent either nexus or proportionality, a taking has occurred, and the Takings Clause requires that the property owner get “just compensation.” So far, so good.

The facts in Koontz are to some extent irrelevant; indeed the Court’s opinion expressly disowned any determination of the merits of his particular claim for compensation. Depending on whose brief you read, Koontz wanted to develop some wetlands property but the Water Management District refused to approve his project as proposed and put forth some mitigation options that were either “extortionate demands” or “helpful suggestions”, one of which consisted of Koontz spending money to improve public lands remote from his own property. Koontz took umbrage and sued under Florida state law.  The trial court found for Koontz on the basis of Nollan-Dolan, and the intermediate state appellate court affirmed.

The Florida Supreme Court reversed for two reasons: first, it held the Nollan-Dolan standard does not apply to denial of a permit; and second, it held the standard does not apply to a requirement for the payment of money, as opposed to the impairment of a specific piece of property.

Every Justice agreed that the Florida Supreme Court got the first part wrong; that is, they all agreed the Takings Clause applies to permit denials as well as permit approvals. The majority and dissent parted ways with respect to the second question, however, with the majority again holding that Florida got it wrong and that excluding monetary exactions would allow permitting agencies to improperly circumvent the Nollan-Dolan requirements.

Now, one can agree or disagree with the majority, but the decision hardly shocks the conscience. What the decision holds is far less important than what remains to be decided in future cases:

1.    How concrete and specific must a demanded concession be to give rise to liability under Nollan and Dolan?
2.    What happens if a permitting authority merely says, “Denied, come back with something better,” and makes no other demand?
3.    Where will the line be drawn to prevent countless local land use decisions from becoming federal cases?

On these points, the majority took the Fifth.

Will the South Carolina General Assembly Speak?

Posted on March 12, 2012 by Thomas Lavender

Two recent South Carolina Supreme Court decisions have addressed significant environmental regulatory issues.  In the Smith Land decision  which dealt with state regulation of discharges into isolated wetlands (“waters of the State”), the court held that there is a private cause of action to enforce the provisions of the South Carolina Pollution Control Act (“PCA”)1.   In the Sandlands decision  which involved a certified question from the federal district court, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that the state’s Solid Waste Policy & Planning Act (“SWA”) did not preempt local government flow control2.   Each of these issues has been addressed in prior blogs (1, 2), although the outcome of the certified question on the flow control matter had not yet been determined.

Several pieces of legislation pending in the South Carolina General Assembly respond to these decisions and the issues they address.

House Bill H.4654 and its companion Senate Bill S.1126 would amend the PCA to identify those activities which require, or do not require, a permit under the Smith Land decision.  The bills also preclude a private cause of action to enforce the provisions of the PCA.  The House version of the bill cleared the House Agriculture subcommittee and committee with overwhelming support and is now on the House calendar for consideration.  These bills enjoy considerable support from the regulated community.

Two other bills address the question of whether state law preempts local government flow control following the Sandlands decision.  Senate Bill S.514 and its companion House Bill H.4721 would amend the SWA to prohibit local ordinances that preclude solid waste disposal facilities, regardless of location.  The House version has also cleared the House Agriculture subcommittee and committee with nearly unanimous support and is pending on the floor of the House for consideration.

In each instance, the General Assembly clearly appears to be reacting to the Smith Land and Sandlands decisions in an effort to give meaning to its legislative intent.  Time will tell whether the proposed amendments will be enacted into law as the Legislature moves through its last year of a two-year Session.

1 Georgetown County League of Women Voters v. Smith Land Co., 393 S.C. 350, 713 S.E. 2d 287 (2011).
2 Sandlands C&D, LLC v. County of Horry, 394 S.C. 451, 716 S.E. 2d 280 (2011).