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Sierra Club v. Marsh

Citation: 19 ELR 20572
No. No. 86-1942-GT(IEG), 692 F. Supp. 1210/(S.D. Cal., 05/13/1988) Settlement approved

The court holds that parties that entered into a settlement under which land would be transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for use as a wildlife refuge to mitigate the impacts of a flood control and highway improvement project need not obtain a development permit from a city attempting to block the land transfer, and the settlement does not violate the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) or the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The court first holds that the settling parties are not required to obtain a development permit under the California Coastal Act (CCA), since the conveyance falls within the "recreational use" exception to the Act's definition of development. Recreational use under the CCA encompasses the conservation of natural beauty and the preservation of historic sites. The land will provide habitat for a variety of plants and animals, including two endangered species, as well as a valuable base for the study of the natural history of the marsh ecosystem. Even if the land transfer constitutes development under the CCA, the city's permit process would not apply. The city cannot impose conditions on the federal government's land acquisition power under the Endangered Species Act. The court holds that the city's license and easement rights through the land will not be impaired by the conveyance. The court holds that the FWS is not estopped from obtaining the land by statements made by various federal officials concerning the city's proposed development plan for the land. The city cannot claim that it was unaware of federal opposition to its plan, since FWS has consistently expressed its concern about the plan's ecological impacts. The federal officials making [19 ELR 20573] the statements had no authority to bind the government. Further, the city's reliance was unreasonable because it relied on oral statements rather than written records.

The court holds that the settlement is fair and does not prejudice the city's rights. The court rejects the city's estoppel claim alleging that it relied on statements by various federal officials purportedly agreeing to a mediation procedure. The court holds that the settlement does not violate the CZMA. Even if the federal defendants have violated the CZMA by failing to certify that the conveyance is consistent with the city's local coastal plan, the settlement does not prejudice the city's right to bring a claim under the CZMA. The court notes that it is not clear that a consistency determination will be necessary for the conveyance. Further, federal agencies need only establish consistency with federally approved coastal management plans, and the city's local coastal plan has not been approved. The court holds that the city's NEPA claims also do not preclude approval of the settlement. It is unlikely that the federal defendants' decision not to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement would be held unreasonable, especially where the government seeks to acquire land for environmental mitigation purposes.

[A previous case in this litigation is published at 17 ELR 20717.]

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Laurens H. Silver
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Inc.
2044 Fillmore St., San Francisco CA 94115
(415) 567-6100

Counsel for Defendants
Donald A. Carr, Eileen Sobeck
Land and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2000