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Sierra Club v. Antwerp

June 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth Chief Judge United States District Court



This case concerns a 500-acre multi-use development located in a Tampa, Florida suburb known as Cypress Creek Town Center (CCTC). Plans for the project include retail stores, financial institutions, hotels, restaurants, theaters, offices, and multi-family housing. The project site is located on wetlands, which will need to be "filled" in order for the project to be completed as planned. Because the project site involves the filling of wetlands, the Clean Water Act (CWA) required the project's developers to obtain a special permit prior to construction. Further, the project's developers were required to comply with other federal, state, and local environmental regulations.

The Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) issued a permit for the development in May 2007 and construction started shortly thereafter. Six months later, plaintiffs, three environmental groups and individuals, filed suit alleging violations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the CWA, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Meanwhile, during the initial stages of construction, turbid, silt-laden water was discharged from the development site in violation of the Corps permit. After the discharges, the Corps received this Court's approval to remand the case in order to re-evaluate the permit. After review, the Corps reissued virtually the same permit, concluding that the discharges resulted from human error, rather than a flaw with the permit. Plaintiffs continued their legal challenge alleging: (1) that the Corps violated NEPA by failing to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement and by failing to otherwise take a "hard look" at the project's adverse impacts and potential alternatives; (2) that the Corps violated the CWA by failing to require practicable alternatives and by arbitrarily and capriciously concluding there would be no significant degradation of Cypress Creek and its wetlands, and no violations of state water quality standards; and (3) that the Corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) violated the ESA by failing to engage in formal consultation on the development's impact on protected species.

Currently before the court are plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, government defendants' motion for summary judgment, and intervening defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment will be granted in part and denied in part. Likewise, government defendants' motion for summary judgment and intervening defendants' cross-motion for will be granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment on their NEPA and CWA claims will be granted but their motion for summary judgment on the ESA claim will be denied. Consequently, government defendants' motion for summary judgment and intervening defendants' cross-motion for summary judgment regarding plaintiffs' ESA claim will be granted.


The CCTC project site consists of 502.412 acres in Pasco County, Florida, approximately nine miles outside of Tampa, Florida. The project site includes 155.46 acres of wetlands.

Wetland systems are comprised of cypress swamp, mixed wetland forests, freshwater marshes, wet prairies and small ponds. Because the proposed project involves the filling of wetlands that are "waters of the United States," pursuant to the CWA, a Section 404 permit is required from the Corps before the project can proceed. This is because wetlands provide storage areas for storm and flood waters as well as water purification functions.

CCTC's uplands include pastureland, wooded lands and scrubby areas, which provide a buffer zone that protects Cypress Creek. The area also provides wildlife habitat for a number of species. The CCTC project was initially approved by local governments having jurisdiction over the project. In addition, the intervening defendants, the "applicants" in the instant case, were required to obtain an Environmental Resource Permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District for the project. The Environmental Resource Permit also serves as the State Water Quality Certification under the CWA.

A. Issuance of the 2007 CWA Permit

In September 2005, Sierra Properties submitted a permit application to the Corps for the CCTC project. The Corps issued a Public Notice on October 31, 2005 and initiated consultation with the FWS in December 2005 concerning the impact on certain protected animal species, specifically the Wood Stork and the Eastern Indigo Snake. The Corps received public comments from state and local agencies, elected officials, organizations, and individual citizens and reviewed the comments. The CWA permit process culminated in a May, 2007 Environmental Assessment (EA) and Statement of Findings. In the EA, the Corps outlined the process it had implemented to assess the environmental review. Specifically, the Corps engaged in an "informal consultation" with the FWS regarding the potential impact on threatened and endangered species. The FWS concurred with the Corps' determination that the project would likely not adversely affect the Wood Stork and Indigo Snake. FWS also concurred with the Corps' determination that the project would have no affect on the Scrub Jay. Concluding that the CCTC project failed to impose any significant environmental impacts, the EA also constituted the Corps' Finding of No Significant Impact under NEPA. Based on these findings, the Corps issued a permit on May 15, 2007.

The 2007 permit authorized the construction of a new town center, including a main street regional mall and power center, which included retail businesses, financial institutions, hotels, restaurants, theaters, gas stations, offices and residential housing. CCTC will also provide parking for more than 14,000 cars. However, within two months of the issuance of the 2007 permit, the site began releasing turbid, silt-laden water into Cypress Creek. While the Corps demanded that the discharges stop and the applicant assured the Corps that the issue was under control, the discharges continued through 2008. On February 1, 2008, the Corps suspended the 2007 CWA permit and concluded it would investigate the causes of the violations to determine whether the violations undermined the Corps' permit decision.

B. Issuance of the 2009 CWA Permit

After suspending the 2007 CWA permit, the Corps conducted a review of the causes of the discharges coming from the CCTC site. The Corps issued a public notice advising of the reevaluation and considered additional information. During remand, the plaintiffs submitted additional information about CCTC's potential environmental impacts. After completing additional environmental reviews, the Corps issued a Supplemental Environmental Assessment (SEA), which concluded the prohibited discharges from the site were caused by "human error" rather than as a result of the 2007 permit. On September 3, 2009, the Corps issued a slightly modified permit allowing the CCTC project to continue.

C. Procedural Posture

Plaintiffs, three environmental groups, asserted this challenge to the CCTC permit in 2007, claiming that the CCTC permit would degrade Cypress Creek and its wetlands. Plaintiffs asserted that the wetland destruction was unnecessary and unlawful; that the Corps and FWS were required to formally consult on impacts to federally listed species; and that an EIS should have been prepared pursuant to NEPA. After the discharges from the site began and the Corps suspended the 2007 permit, the Court granted the Corps' request for a voluntary remand and stay of all litigation, noting that the Corps "may conduct additional environmental review" pursuant to the ESA, NEPA and the CWA. On September 3, 2009, the Corps notified the Court and the parties that the Corps had issued another CWA permit. Plaintiff's Revised Supplemental Complaint challenges the 2009 CWA permit. Currently before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment [Dkt. 70], Defendants' motion for summary judgment [Dkt. 73], and Intervening Defendants' cross motion for summary judgment [Dkt. 74]. Subsequent to the filings of the motions for summary judgment, plaintiffs' filed a motion for expedited argument due to construction activity at the CCTC project site.


A. Legal Standard

Generally, summary judgment should be granted only if the moving party has shown that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Waterhouse v. District of Columbia, 298 F.3d 989, 991 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the Court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the non- moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). The non-moving party's opposition, however, must consist of more than mere unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits or other competent evidence setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324.

However, a federal agency's compliance with its statutory and regulatory obligations is subject to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA creates a cause of action for challenges to final agency decisions, findings or conclusions alleged to be "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A). While the court's review must be "searching and careful, the ultimate standard of review is a narrow one" and the court "is not empowered to substitute its judgment for that of the agency." Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 416 (1971). The standard is deferential in order to guard against "undue judicial interference" with the lawful exercise of agency discretion and prevents "judicial entanglement in abstract policy disagreements which courts lack both the expertise and information to resolve. Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 542 U.S. 55, 66 (2004). In applying this standard, action will be set aside if the agency identified no "rational connection between the facts found and the choice made," if the "explanation for its decision [is] counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that is could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise." Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983). Under the APA's standard of review, there is a presumption of validity of agency action. Ethyl Corp. v. EPA, 541 F.2d 1, 34 (D.C. Cir. 1976) (en banc). Nevertheless, the "arbitrary and capricious" standard is not meant to reduce judicial review to a "rubber-stamp" of agency action. Id.


Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969 in order to insure that all agencies of the federal government consider the environmental effects of proposed actions. Sierra Club v. Watkins, 808 F.Supp. 852, 858 (D.C.D. 1991). NEPA's primary purpose is to make certain "that the agency, in reaching its decision, will have available, and will carefully consider, detailed information concerning significant environmental impacts." Roberston v. Methow Valley Citizens Council, 490 U.S. 332, 349 (1989). In addition to providing information to the decisionmakers at the agency, NEPA also "guarantees that the relevant information will be made available to the larger audience that may also play a role in both the decisionmaking process and the implementation of that decision." Id. This audience includes the public because the documentation "gives the public the assurance that the agency has indeed considered environmental concerns in its decisionmaking process, and, perhaps more significantly, provides a springboard for public comment." Sierra Club v. Watkins, 808 F.Supp. at 858 (quoting Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 462 U.S. 87, 97 (1983); Robertson, 490 U.S. at 349). Instead of "mandating particular environmental results, NEPA imposes procedural requirements on federal agencies to analyze the environmental impact of their proposals and actions." O'Reilly v. United States Army Corp of Engineers, 477 F.3d 225, 228 (5th Cir. 2007).

At the heart of NEPA is § 4332(a)(C), which requires that a government agency prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) whenever a proposed government action qualifies as a "major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment."*fn1 When it is not readily discernible how significant the environmental effects of a proposed action will be, federal agencies may prepare an Environmental Assessment ("EA"). 40 C.F.R. § 1501.4(b). In other words, an environmental assessment (EA) is made in order to determine whether an EIS is required. See 40 C.F.R. § 1508.9; Grand Canyon Trust v. Federal Aviation Administration, 290 F.3d 339, 340 (D.C. Cir. 2002). Specifically, an EA is a "concise public document . . . that serves to . . . [b]riefly provide sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an [EIS] or a finding of no significant impact." 40 C.F.R. § 1508.9(a)(1); see also 33 C.F.R. §§ 230.10-230.11 (explaining the Corps' requirements for an EA).

However, "[i]f any 'significant' environmental impacts might result from the proposed agency action then an EIS must be prepared before agency action is taken." Grand Canyon Trust, 290 F.3d at 339 (emphasis in original). Significance is determined by evaluating both the context of the action and the intensity of the impact. 40 C.F.R. § 1508.27. Intensity refers to the severity of the impact. The applicable regulation provides that the following factors should be considered in evaluating intensity:

(1) Impacts that may be both beneficial and adverse. A significant effect may exist even if the Federal agency believes that on ...

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