In 2007, an Idaho couple began work on what has been called their “dream” home in a subdivision in Priest Lake. But the Environmental Protection Agency shut down Michael and Chantell Sackett, claiming their private property was a federal domain. More than a decade later, they’re still tied up in court, hoping that reason eventually overcome pettiness.
“All we wanted to do was build our house,” Michael Sackett once said.
Instead of enjoying their home, they’ve been living a nightmare, agonizing through a “Hell” brought on by federal bureaucrats that no American should have to endure, says Michael.
The EPA says the Sacketts violated the federal Clean Water Act by filling in their lot with rocks and soil to level it because the property they had bought for $23,000 was a wetlands falling under the jurisdiction of the waters of the United States. This happened in a development built out with homes, on a landlocked 0.63-acre dirt parcel that has a local sewer connection, and in a neighborhood that had been zoned for residential use.
After ordering the Sacketts to immediately halt work on their own land, the EPA hit them with a compliance order. It “demanded costly restoration work, and required a three-year monitoring program during which the property must be left untouched,” says the Pacific Legal Foundation.
“The EPA also ordered them to provide off-site mitigation and pay fines exceeding the value of the land. Further, the EPA warned the Sacketts they would be liable for civil penalties up to $75,000 per day and possible criminal sanctions if they failed to comply with the order,” say the PLF lawyers representing the Sacketts.
The Sacketts “hired their own scientists to refute the wetlands claim” says the Reason Foundation, yet “the EPA refused to offer any documentation or evidence for its position.” The couple therefore felt that had no other choice but to sue the agency.
The EPA moved to dismiss the suit “on the grounds that a compliance order is not the type of agency action subject to judicial review,” and “the district court and 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed,” said the Pacific Legal Foundation, throwing the Sacketts’ lawsuit out of court.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the 9th’s ruling in 2012, because they had been deprived of their right to sue the EPA. With the ruling in hand, the Sacketts went back to court, suing the EPA.
But there was more to the bad dream.
Earlier this year, back in federal district court, the Sacketts lost again. U.S. District Court (Idaho) Judge Judge Edward Lodge (a Reagan appointee) ruled the EPA’s original “determination was not arbitrary or capricious and is supported by the record.” The couple appealed that decision in late May.
What has happened, and is still happening, to the Sacketts is further evidence that the federal regulatory machinery is an enabler of bureaucratic and political harassment.
In the Supreme Court’s ruling, Justice Samuel Alito noted “the reach of the Clean Water Act is notoriously unclear,” and recognized there are dangers created by the lack of clarity.
“Any piece of land that is wet at least part of the year is in danger of being classified by EPA employees as wetlands covered by the act, and according to the federal government, if property owners begin to construct a home on a lot that the agency thinks possesses the requisite wetness, the property owners are at the agency’s mercy,” Alito wrote.
He also criticized “the draconian penalties imposed for the sort of violations alleged in this case,” as well as the harsh reality that property owners sometimes have to “dance to the EPA’s tune.”
“Real relief,” according to Alito, “requires Congress to do what it should have done in the first place: provide a reasonably clear rule regarding the reach of the Clean Water Act.”
Seven years after Alito wrote those words, the Clean Water Act remains unchanged. President Trump has successfully moved his deregulatory agenda ahead, but Congress needs to produce reforms that will prevent bureaucrats from misunderstanding, intentionally misinterpreting, and abusing statutory law. To borrow a phrase that seems to be programmed on a loop in Democratic politicians’ mouths, that’s not who we are.
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