David vs. Goliath: Idaho Couple Takes on the EPA

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WASHINGTON - When Mike and Chantell Sackett purchased land for their dream home near Priest Lake, Idaho, they obtained all the permits required by the county.

They even checked with the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure the federal government would okay their project.

But as workers began laying in gravel in May 2007, Environmental Protection Agency officials showed up and demanded they stop, saying the property was in a protected wetlands zone.

"They said it's in the wetland inventory," Chantell told CBN News.

The Sacketts checked the EPA's coordinates and found their land wasn't really in that inventory. Neighbors also attested they weren't in the wetlands inventory and had never been hassled by EPA. The Sacketts hired three experts who determined their property was not a part of the wetland area.

"In the Sacketts' case, there are no wetlands anywhere near the property." Damien Schiff, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation.

"There's a puddle when it rains hard, but otherwise no. The lake is about 500 feet away," Mike explained.

But according to Schiff, the EPA says its authority covers "not only every wet spot in the country, but in the Sacketts' case, even the dry spots."

The Sacketts wanted to surrender and just give the land to EPA. But the agency refused and issued a compliance order telling the couple they had to remove all of the gravel.

"...Then you need to plant these special wetland plants that are not native to the area, you need to fence it, and you need to watch it and monitor it for three years," Chantell said, listing the EPA's demands.

Then they could apply for a permit that might someday allow them to build on their property.

However, Schiff noted that "the process can take several years and costs on average $270,000, which is ten times the value of their property."

Should the Sacketts fail to comply, the EPA said they could be fined more than $30,000 a day.

"Which at this time, as we're sitting here having this interview with you, is over $40 million," Mike told CBN News.

Denied Due Process?

The Sacketts then decided to seek their day in court. However, the EPA argued that their rules didn't allow that and two courts agreed.

At that point, the Pacific Legal Foundation got involved, hoping to get the Supreme Court to rule on whether the Sacketts and many other Americans like them have been denied due process unconstitutionally.

"Every American is entitled to his day in court before the government can say, 'You can't build your home on your property," Schiff said.

The EPA issues some 1,500 to 3,000 Americans a year with such compliance orders.

But some environmentalists disagreed with the Sacketts.

"The compliance order tool is one of a few mechanisms that EPA has to resolve and resolve quickly, pollution problems," Jon P. Devine, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, told BusinessWeek.

Another environmentalist compared the couple's case to someone getting a speeding ticket.

"The traditional remedy is that you appeal the ticket in court," they wrote. "The Sacketts, however, are essentially arguing that they should get to go to court to dispute the facts before the cop even issues the ticket."

Critics: EPA 'Out of Control'

But others praise the Sacketts for taking on what they call an out-of-control EPA.

The "EPA is trying to inflate the term 'waters of the United States' into 'moistures of the United States,'" said Sam Kazman, general counsel with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Although the Sacketts say they can prove their property is not a wetland, Schiff explained "because you can't get into court to challenge the EPA, the EPA's word is final."

"And that's really the injustice of it all," he noted.

"They want to bully you," Mike charged. "They intimidate you. They back you into a corner that you really have no way to get out of."

"The EPA is a jobs killer and a public enemy of ordinary citizens," one angry blogger wrote.

"The EPA can come in and turn your life upside down," Chantell said. "They can make you feel really small and insignificant. And they take away from you your sense of America."

"A victory in the Supreme Court would help not just the Sacketts, but frankly would help people throughout this country," Schiff said.

However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Sacketts' case Jan. 9.

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.