Federal Court Rejects Lawsuit to Force Stormwater Permits in the Charles River Watershed

The following is a guest post by Hamilton Hackney of Greenberg Traurig regarding the recent decision in CLF v. EPA. NAIOP is extremely pleased with the decision in this case, which we had been following closely. NAIOP will continue to monitor stormwater issues at the state and federal levels on behalf of the commercial real estate industry.

Last week, the federal district court dismissed a lawsuit that sought to force USEPA to create a permitting program for stormwater discharges in the Charles River watershed.  Filed by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Charles River Watershed Association, the suit claimed that USEPA had a mandatory duty to require commercial and institutional properties that discharged stormwater to obtain permits to do so.  If successful, this suit would have forced commercial and institutional property owners to obtain permits, develop stormwater control plans and possibly design and install additional stormwater controls on their properties.

The suit invoked USEPA’s so-called Residual Designation Authority in the Clean Water Act. Although this authority has been exercised very infrequently to date, environmental groups are increasingly citing this statutory authorization as a basis for demanding that USEPA expand regulation of stormwater beyond industrial sources, construction sites and municipal stormwater systems.  In this particular case, the environmental groups argued that USEPA’s approval of “pollution budgets” (Total Daily Maximum Loads or TMDLs) for the Charles River obligated USEPA to regulate previously unregulated stormwater discharges to ensure that the TMDLs were achieved.  Given the hundreds of existing or proposed TMDLs in Massachusetts alone, that position could have far-reaching consequences for commercial and institutional real estate in the many watersheds with TMDLs.

The federal district court’s dismissal of this lawsuit follows another federal court decision last December in a similar case in Rhode Island.  Together, these decisions indicate that courts remain reluctant to intrude on USEPA’s discretion to choose when and how it may exercise its Residual Designation Authority.  While that is an encouraging outcome, these decisions are likely to be appealed, so there may be more developments on this issue.

Plaintiffs Drop Stormwater Lawsuit Against EPA: NAIOP Applauds Decision & Remains Opposed to RDA as Regulatory Tool

Yesterday, the Conservation Law Foundation and Charles River Watershed Association, plaintiffs in Conservation Law Foundation, Inc., et al v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, et al., voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice. NAIOP Massachusetts filed a Motion to Intervene in the case.

The plaintiffs in that case sought to compel EPA to impose a new regulatory program that would have required owners of commercial, institutional, industrial and high density residential properties in the Charles River watershed with one acre or more of impervious area (parking lots, roofs, sidewalks) to apply for a stormwater discharge permit through the use of EPA’s rarely used “Residual Designation Authority” (RDA). NAIOP decided to intervene in the case given the significant impact this duplicative and burdensome regulatory program would have had on property owners in a watershed that includes 35 communities and covers 310 square miles.

“NAIOP has long supported the overall objective of improving water quality throughout the Charles River Watershed, but with compliance costs estimated to be in excess of $1 billion, the RDA approach is simply not the right tool,” said David Begelfer, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts. “We are pleased the plaintiffs dropped the suit. Such important policy decisions should not be negotiated behind closed doors. NAIOP urges EPA to carefully think through this issue, seek feedback from affected stakeholders, and ensure any potential programs are cost-effective, feasible and fairly allocate the regulatory burdens and costs.”

NAIOP will continue to monitor this issue closely and keep members informed of any new developments.