Rising Sea Levels

Rising Sea Levels and Prohibited "Takings" - A Different Sort of Climate Change Litigation

November 19, 2014 00:39
by J. Wylie Donald

 

A little noted anniversary passed this past week.  The odd 2009 storm, Nor’Ida (the progeny of a nor’easter and a hurricane), swept along the east coast pounding some areas with record storm surge five years ago in the second week of November.  Who is keeping Nor’Ida’s memory alive?  Among others, homeowners in Nags Head, North Carolina have especially good memories, as shown by their long-running litigation, Sansotta v. Town of Nag's Head.  They have been in state court, federal district court, the Fourth Circuit and on November 6 (one week short of the fifth anniversary of Nor’Ida) won an important battle in the Eastern District of North Carolina.  (The decision is attached below.)  Whether that is the end of the saga is anybody’s guess.  Or at least must be measured by how long the taxpayers want to keep paying their lawyers.

 

We blogged the prelude to the most recent decision a year ago last August.  Homeowners (perhaps beachfront cottage-owners is a better term) had challenged the Town of Nags Head, which had labeled certain beachfront homes nuisances because they obstructed emergency response and were in disrepair from Nor’Ida.  The plaintiffs asserted various constitutional claims (equal protection, due process, prohibited takings).  The Fourth Circuit rejected all the claims except the takings claim, which should have been allowed to proceed.   We pick up now from the Fourth Circuit’s ruling

 

Notwithstanding the loss of two theories of recovery, the case was hardly simple when it showed up before Chief Judge James Dever III on dueling motions for summary judgment. Plaintiffs asserted 14 causes of action, the Town responded with four counterclaims.  A few pieces of background are important. Nor'Ida (referred to by the Court as the November Storm) was anticipated and the homeowners took steps to preserve their properties with various earthmoving activities, but the Town ordered the work to stop when the access road washed out. Following the storm and accompanying damage the Town declared the properties nuisances, pursuant to a town ordinance.  The ordinance at issue provided as follows:

 

 [t]he existence of any of the following conditions associated with storm-damaged or erosion-damaged structures or their resultant debris shall constitute a public nuisance.

(a) ...

(b) Damaged structure or debris from damaged structures where it can reasonably be determined that there is a likelihood of personal or property injury;

(c) Any structure, regardless of condition, or any debris from damaged structure which is located in whole or in part in a public trust area or public land.

 

The Town invoked both provisions (b) and (c).

 

The public trust provision ((c)) was the most straightforward to enforce for the Town. Either the cottages were located in the public trust, or they were not. Further, if a property was in the public trust, it could not be issued a building permit for repair. Unfortunately for the Town, much of Judge Dever's work had already been accomplished when the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that public trust rights could only be enforced by the Attorney General. See Town of Nags Head v. Cherry, Inc., 723 S.E.2d 156, 160-61 (2012). Accordingly, the Town's nuisance ordinance relying on the doctrine was invalid.  Other claims of violations of due process, of negligent enforcement, for declaratory judgment, etc. were easily addressed as well (and won’t be discussed here).

 

That left the causes of action relying on the provision of the ordinance that forbade decrepit properties. Here, however, the Town had materially interfered with the homeowners' ability to repair their properties. And that, held the Court, constituted a prohibited taking, even if it were only a temporary prohibition.  Thus, even if the homes became nuisances during the storm, they did not have to continue that way because they would have been repaired in the normal course. In that case, “No rational jury could find that such use [repairing a beachfront cottage for use] constitutes a nuisance under the background principles of North Carolina common law.”  Sansotta at 26. Nevertheless, the Court also found merit in the Town's opposition to the plaintiffs' motion and denied both sides summary judgment on the temporary regulatory takings topic.

 

Takings scholars will undoubtedly find much to discuss in the Court's extensive discussion. We take a different focus and consider the decision in the context of rising sea level litigation, a different sort of climate change litigation from the liability suits we have frequently discussed. First, only those with their head in the sand refuse to acknowledge the rise of the oceans, and the increased acceleration of that rise. Government inevitably is going to have to take steps. The question will be:  when?  Must a municipality declare a nuisance only when the nuisance is overt and uncontroverted?  Or can the nuisance be anticipated and steps taken before the storm surge has wiped a slab slick, and distributed debris throughout the municipality. The Court suggests that proactive steps are possible, but they must be lawful:  “the Owners rightly expected that the Town would not attempt to accelerate that process [where erosion made it such that cottages could not legally or practically be repaired] through its unauthorized assertion of the public trust doctrine.” Sansotta at 27.  But the Court offers no insight on what accelerative steps might be approved.  That will be another topic for scholars.

 

Second, condemnation of beachfront cottages as nuisances may be extremely detrimental to the owners of the cottages, but it is a delightful windfall to those one lot inland.  Those lucky homeowners now own beachfront property (or at least unobstructed beach view property).  The Court acknowledged as much:  “the result would not have been a mere adjustment of the benefits and burdens of economic life.  Rather, the result would have been an outright transfer of wealth from the Owners to the beachgoing public and to those who own the would-be oceanfront cottages behind the Owners’ Cottages.” Sansotta at 28.  It is another interesting scholarly question as to whether that windfall can or should be distributed back in some way to the ousted beachfront owner, thus mitigating the total loss otherwise felt by the homeowner.

 

We have foisted much upon scholars here, but for planning purposes there may be no other place to find answers besides academe.  We haven’t been here before and if there’s a hope of avoiding swamping the littoral courts with lawsuits over windfalls and takings, then that hope must hinge on some well thought-out plan.  Stay tuned.  Sansotta's time for appeal has not yet run and, in any event, future hurricanes coming ashore at higher mean sea levels are inevitable, and so will be future disputes.

Climate Change Litigation | Rising Sea Levels | Weather

EPA COMMENTS SUGGEST EMPHASIS ON CREATIVITY AND INTERNALIZING EXTERNALITIES IN CLIMATE STRATEGY

October 14, 2014 09:29
by Jameson Tweedie

The American Bar Association's Section of Energy, Environment and Resources held its Fall Conference last week.  Noteworthy from a climate perspective were the keynote address by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, along with comments by other officials within President Obama's Administration with specific responsibility on climate issues—including Samantha Medlock, Deputy Associate Director for Climate Preparedness (White House Council on Environmental Quality); Hilary Tompkins, Solicitor (Department of the Interior); Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (EPA); and Lorie Schmidt, Associate General Counsel of Air and Radiation (EPA).  Two repeated themes have particular resonance on climate issues.

First was a repeated focus on the role of government to level the playing field.  Emphasized, for example, was the EPA’s effort to strongly enforce existing regulations and permits to eliminate competitive advantages that environmental rule-breaking gains individuals or companies over their rule-abiding competitors—in other words, to internalize the externalities associated with environmental rule-breaking.  Or, as Administrator McCarthy put it, to make compliance the efficient decision.  An analogous focus was evident on reducing the advantage the Administration believes heavy carbon-emitting companies gain over their lower-carbon competitors.  Ms. Schmidt, in particular, made clear the Administration's intent, in the wake of the authority left to the EPA by the Supreme Court in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, 573 U.S. ___ (2014), to continue imposing carbon limits on all applicable large emission sources.

All indications are that the Administration is looking for opportunities to expand the reach of carbon emission limits beyond just those large sources.  The goal of leveling the carbon playing field across sources would undoubtedly have been simpler in many respects through a nationwide carbon tax or cap-and-trade system.  Indeed, John Cruden (current President of the Environmental Law Institute and nominee to head the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division), quoted former Secretary of State George Shultz who expressed the pressing need to put "all forms of energy production on an even playing field" by internalizing the externalities associated with carbon emissions and other pollutants.  But, with a national carbon tax or cap-and-trade system a congressional nonstarter, the Administration is left seeking a piecemeal set of solutions that, taken together, can achieve its climate goals. 

This challenge seemed to lead naturally into the second theme of Administration personnel:  the need for creative solutions.  While by no means limited to climate change (for example, this was also reiterated in CERCLA and other enforcement contexts), the need for creative solutions seems particularly apt in the broad climate context facing the Administration.  That is, congressional impasse on top of stalled or snail pace efforts to reach an international framework.  Within these parameters, any significant short term climate change efforts are left to state and local action, to action within the corporate world (as former EPA head William Reilly was quoted, CEOs are the "unsung heroes" of the environmental movement, making environmental progress cost competitive) and to administrative action.  Ms. Medlock particularly pointed out the burden likely to fall on state and local government to devise innovative, cost-effective solutions to build resiliency along the coasts to the double challenge of rising sea levels and the increased storm intensity and storm surges which climate change is predicted to bring.  (Evidencing the Administration’s focus on this issue, Administrator McCarthy headed directly from the Conference to an event on Miami Beach highlighting the rising seas and extreme tides facing South Florida.) 

As recent reports have indicated, while climate change impacts will be unevenly spread, no region will be spared its share of challenges, whether they be sea level rise and storm surge, flooding or drought, extreme temperatures or otherwise.  Without a doubt, creativity is required.

Carbon Emissions | Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Rising Sea Levels

The New Bucket List: NOAA’s Top Sites for Increased Nuisance Flooding

July 29, 2014 14:26
by J. Wylie Donald

"Seawater on the streets.”  One immediately knows that, notwithstanding the alliterative allure, something is not right.  And when one is in Annapolis, Maryland, and the Alex Haley Scuplture Group is literally reading in the waves, it is plain disconcerting.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls this “nuisance flooding,” and has just issued a report, Sea Level Rise and Nuisance Flood Frequency Changes around the United States, that takes sea level rise down to the day-to-day and documents the quotidian, long-term repetitive inundations that are regularly besetting portions of the American littoral.  Annapolis and its sometimes aquatic sculpture grace the cover of the report and also top the list of areas experiencing the most increase in nuisance flooding.  

The report is based on the National Water Level Observation Network (NWLON), whose gauges have been monitoring tides for decades, even, in many cases, nearly a century.  NOAA scientists have applied their expertise and formulae and provided valuable results.  The report is quite technical.  For example, “[t]rends derived from linear regression on the annual number of nuisance flood days are statistically significant at the 90% level at 41 of the 45 gauges analyzed.”  Report at 9-10.  However, while the Report may be technical, the graphs are plain.  Even non-technical people can understand the scatter plots showing an accelerating trend of nuisance flooding or the bar charts that show the increase in annual days of flooding. 

Where is this increase occurring, and when? The Report identifies the Mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake Bay, North and South Carolina and southern Texas as experiencing a higher value of “nuisance flood days” – greater than 20 annually. Report at 9. By way of comparison, in the 1950s the frequency of nuisance flooding across the United States (the return period) was of the order of 1-5 years. Today “the probabilities of a nuisance flood event have increased throughout much of the U.S., with return periods typically <0.25 year (3 months) at most NOAA gauges.” Report at 16.  Besides Annapolis, areas recently suffering over 20 nuisance flood days on average per year include Atlantic City and Sandy Hook, N.J., Charleston, S.C., and Washington, D.C.

The significance of this is easy to visualize:  “overwhelmed stormwater drainage capacity, frequent road closures, and general deterioration and corrosion of infrastructure not designed to withstand frequent inundation or salt-water exposure.”  Report at vi. 

But there are other more subtle impacts.  Nuisance flooding immerses a community in a rising sea level.  That may prompt a review of coastal property boundaries and, because the State owns the land below mean high water (or, in some cases, mean low water), a transfer of property to the State with the accompanying effect on tax base and property ownership may materialize with substantial impact on the community.  Even without a redrawing of property lines, properties subject to increased flooding are likely to lose value, reducing or eliminating nest eggs, retirement security and loan collateral.  In such circumstances, transaction professionals (lawyers, real estate agents) may wish to evaluate the disclosures their client sellers need to make and the warranties their client buyers should require.

Rising sea levels are bringing the ocean into areas it used to avoid.  The new bucket list for some destinations may literally mean to bring a bucket.   

 

Climate Change Effects | Rising Sea Levels

Top 6 at 6: Highlights of the Top Climate Change Legal Stories in the First Half of 2014

July 7, 2014 09:10
by J. Wylie Donald
Our semi-annual look at the top climate change legal stories is keyed on EPA.  You hardly have to have been awake to be aware of the Clean Power Plan and UARG v. EPA.  But other things have stirred the pot as well:  three reports – two by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the other by Standard & Poor’s, and two climate change lawsuits – one by Illinois Farmers Insurance Company and the other by Biscayne Bay Water Keeper. 
 
1.  The Clean Power Plan - On June 6 EPA issued a 600+ page proposal directed at controlling carbon dioxide emissions from operating power plants.  By June 2016 States are required to submit plans for such control (there is also an option for extending the due date if more time is needed).  EPA’s press release summarizes what is supposed to happen:
 
The Clean Power Plan will be implemented through a state-federal partnership under which states identify a path forward using either current or new electricity production and pollution control policies to meet the goals of the proposed program. The proposal provides guidelines for states to develop plans to meet state-specific goals to reduce carbon pollution and gives them the flexibility to design a program that makes the most sense for their unique situation. States can choose the right mix of generation using diverse fuels, energy efficiency and demand-side management to meet the goals and their own needs. It allows them to work alone to develop individual plans or to work together with other states to develop multi-state plans.
  
Thus, the learning that has gone on over the past several years as embodied in RGGI, AB 32, RPSs and other state initiatives is going to have an opportunity to prove itself.

2. UARG v. EPA - The Supreme Court has now weighed in on climate change three times:  Massachusetts v. EPA, Connecticut v. American Electric Power and, this past month, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA. – Readers will remember the D.C. Circuit’s 2012 ruling in favor of EPA defeating challenges to the Endangerment Finding, the Tailpipe Rule, the Timing Rule and the Tailoring Rule.  UARG was a limited appeal of that decision and accomplished nearly all that EPA required.  At the end of June the Supreme Court affirmed EPA’s greenhouse gas regulatory program, with the exception of rules focused on a small group of emitters.  How small?  Before UARG EPA estimated its rules would reach 86% of GHG emissions.  After UARG EPA can reach only 83%.  In a nutshell, EPA has authority under the Clean Air Act to impose GHG emission regulations on major emitters already subject to regulation.  This bodes ill for those seeking to challenge the Clean Power Plan.

3. Climate Science - The science continues to mount demonstrating the effects of climate change.  In two more contributions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group II lays out in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability “how patterns of risks and potential benefits are shifting due to climate change.”  The report also assesses how “impacts and risks related to climate change can be reduced and managed through adaptation and mitigation.”  In Climate Change 2014:  Mitigation of Climate Change Working Group III “respond[ed] to the request of the world's governments for a comprehensive, objective and policy neutral assessment of the current scientific knowledge on mitigating climate change." The two reports complement Working Group I’s report released last year, which concluded:  “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

4.  Climate Risk - It has been a common theme for this blog that acceptance of climate change will occur not because of science, but because of the responses of business entities that recognize that climate change denial is not in their best interest.  But it is also a theme that until there is an actual identified business reason to take an action, businesses will not go out on a limb.  Standard & Poor’s exemplifies our thinking.  In March it issued a short report, Climate Change is a Global Mega-Trend for Sovereign Risk.  In the report S&P concludes “the evidence suggests that it is probably safe to expect that for most national economies, other things being equal, climate change will negatively impact national welfare and economic growth potential.  Observations corroborating this expectation could lead Standard & Poor’s to lower sovereign ratings on the most affected sovereigns.”  That is, “we see a potential problem but we aren’t ready to act just yet.”  Notwithstanding S&P's failure to move today, this pronouncement does communicate to the buyers of sovereign debt that they had better pay attention to climate change as it may be material to their investment.

5.  Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. v. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago  - It didn’t take Illinois Farmers long (less than 60 days) to drop its lawsuits against dozens of municipalities and other government entities alleging negligent management of stormwater.  The central feature was the claim that the government entities were on notice of the effects of climate change and did not incorporate them into their stormwater planning.  We presume the entities’ sovereign immunity defense persuaded Illinois Farmers to go quietly in the night.  But the insurance company has competent lawyers and sovereign immunity surely was no surprise.  So, was this the proverbial shot across the bow, putting government, and the entities that serve government – the design and engineering firms – on notice that climate change had better enter into their forecasts or they will be pursued for negligence?  Time will tell.
 
6. U.S. v. Miami-Dade County - Miami-Dade’s sewer insfrastructure is falling apart and EPA compelled the city into a consent order under the Clean Water Act to get things cleaned up.  Enter the intervenor, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, who insisted that the consent decree
was improper as it did not take rising sea levels caused by climate change into effect.  Federal district court judge Federico A. Moreno considered the consent decree and rejected it because it lacked sufficient incentive for the county to abide by the decree.  The court did not mention BBWK’s concern.  Nevertheless, Miami-Dade appears to have gotten the message that it needs to be paying attention.  The county has a task force devoted to sea level rise and it is preparing a report with recommendations.  This is from the April 28 minutes of the task force: 
 
Chairman Ruvin said that sea level rise was inevitable, and to ensure that the community remained insurable, it was important to begin implementing a plan to address this issue. … Chairman Ruvin noted the Task Force members had heard enough information to understand the necessity of developing a plan to address sea level rise.  He said that there were global engineering firms with entire divisions devoted to sea level rise, and suggested that the County conduct a competitive process to retain the services of some of these firms to develop this plan.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether the task force's recommendations will be accepted.

In Issuing Executive Order No. 41, Governor Markell Rejects Any Need to Choose Between Mitigating Climate Change and Supporting Economic Growth

September 13, 2013 21:39
by Mike Kelly  & Jameson Tweedie

Yesterday, Governor Jack Markell issued Executive Order No. 41, “Preparing Delaware for Emerging Climate Impacts and Seizing Economic Opportunities from Reducing Emissions.”  In many climate change discussions there exists an implied or overt assumption that society must choose between the economy and the climate.  Consistent with a theme that has resurfaced throughout his tenure as Governor, in Executive Order No. 41 Governor Markell explicitly rejects that choice:  “initiatives to responsibly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare Delaware for climate impacts present significant economic development and employment opportunities in infrastructure construction, energy efficiency, clean energy, and advanced transportation.”

Executive Order No. 41 consists of three main components.  First, it establishes a Governor’s Committee on Climate and Resiliency (the “Committee”).  The composition of the Committee itself is noteworthy as it is clear this effort is not “mere puffery,” rather the Committee will include many of the key cabinet heads, including the Secretaries of the Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (“DNREC”), Agriculture, Transportation, Health and Human Services, Safety and Homeland Security, and State, as well as the Directors of the Delaware Economic Development Office, the Office of Management and Budget, the Delaware State Housing Authority, and the Office of State Planning Coordination.

Second, the Committee, chaired by the Secretary of DNREC, shall develop a “an implementation plan to maintain and build upon Delaware’s leadership in responsibly reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” as well as recommendations for actions by agencies and local governments.  The plan and recommendations must be delivered to the Governor by the end of 2014, with the implementation plan updated annually thereafter.  Noteworthy are the requirements which Governor Markell mandates for the plan, overtly rejecting the notion that advancing the economy and planning for, and reducing, climate change must be at odds.  The plan “shall ensure that efforts have a positive effect on the State’s economy, including advancing the strategy of securing cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable energy, improving public health outcomes, increasing employment in Delaware, strengthening Delaware’s manufacturing capabilities, and enhancing Delaware’s overall competitiveness” (emphasis added).  This mandate that the climate change plan achieve positive economic results is framed by the plain acknowledgment of the significant risks facing Delaware from climate change and sea level rise.  These risks include that:

  • Delaware has the “lowest average land elevation in the United States and significant population living along 381 miles of shoreline,” putting Delaware at risk for coastal erosion, storm surge, flooding, saltwater intrusion, and tidal wetland losses.
  • Delaware’s critical infrastructure is at risk from climate change.
  • Delaware’s groundwater aquifers are at risk from saltwater intrusion.
  • Delaware’s $8 billion agriculture industry “could be significantly impacted by increasingly variable temperatures, precipitation, extreme weather events, and droughts.”
  • Delaware’s $6 billion tourism industry is vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise.

The Governor makes clear his belief that mitigating climate change and pursuing economic growth are not mutually exclusive.  Indeed, he plainly considers the joint goals of positive economic and climate outcomes as a logical next step from the successes already achieved in Delaware, including Delaware’s role within the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Delaware’s reduction of greenhouse gas emissions “by more than any state in the nation (29.7% from 2000 to 2010),” and Executive Order No. 18, which sought to reduce the climate change impacts of State Government, and which the Governor asserts not only significantly reduced the climate-related impacts of State Government, but at the same time “result[ed] in millions of dollars of savings.”

Third, and likely with the most immediate on-the-ground consequences (rather than future planning), Executive Order No. 41 requires that “all state agencies shall adhere” (emphasis added) to certain flood hazard mitigation and sea level rise adaptation requirements.  These include:

  • Requiring all state agencies to “incorporate measures for adapting to increased flood heights and sea level rise in the siting and design of projects for construction of new structures and reconstruction of substantially damaged structures and infrastructure” to avoid and minimize flood risks, and, wherever “practical and effective” shall use natural systems or green infrastructure to “improve resiliency to flood heights, erosion, and sea level rise.”
  • Requiring structures within Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) special flood hazard areas to be “designed and constructed with habitable space at least 18 inches above current base flood elevation” and, in addition, requiring structures within areas designated by DNREC to be vulnerable to sea level rise inundation to be “designed and constructed to account for sea level changes anticipated during the lifespan of the structure” (emphasis added).
  • Requiring all state agencies to “consider and incorporate the sea level rise scenarios set forth by the DNREC Sea Level Rise Technical Committee into appropriate long-range plans.”

Only time will tell whether Governor Markell can achieve his dual goals of climate change action and economic growth, but Executive Order No. 41 demonstrates that he is well aware of the challenges and confident in his administration’s ability to achieve both goals.  His experience in the private sector and his economic track record since taking office in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession, indicate that his climate change policies, and his optimism that they can be positive forces for economic growth, are based on pragmatism, science and economics, not ideology.

Climate Change | Regulation | Rising Sea Levels

Fourth Circuit Rejects Manipulation of Judicial Process As Ocean Manhandles Homes

August 19, 2013 22:56
by J. Wylie Donald


Can a community condemn shorefront cottages where the beach has eroded at 8 feet per year and the cottages interfere with emergency responders traveling along the beach?  Based on the Fourth Circuit's decision at the end of last month in Sansotta v Town of Nags Head we just don't know. What we do know is that a municipality cannot play both ends of the law against the middle to address the problem.

Let us explain.  Nags Head is a shore community of about 2500 souls (soaring to 40,000 in the summer) on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Municipal ordinances provide that a building suffering storm damage or erosion damage may be a public nuisance where it is in danger of collapsing, where there is a likelihood of personal or property injury, or where the structure is on public trust or public land.  Nags Head Ordinance 16-31(6) (a), (b), (c).  A 2009 storm washed away much of the sand around six cottages leaving their septic tanks exposed. The Town declared the cottages nuisances under Ordinance 16-31(6)(b) and (c) and required their abatement. Demolition was the only way to satisfy the ordinance but the homeowners did not comply and the Town assessed fines accruing at $100 per day.  The homeowners sued. (Twenty other cottages were also declared nuisances resulting in at least two other suits. See Town of Nags Head v. Toloczko, 863 F. Supp. 2d 516 (E.D.N.C. 2012); Town of Nags Head v Cherry, Inc., 723 S.E.2d 156 (N.C. Ct. App. 2012).)
 
The suit was originally filed in state court with claims sounding in both state and federal law. The Town removed to federal court.  Both parties moved for partial summary judgment.  The trial court dismissed and the homeowners appealed.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the equal protection and procedural due process claims; however, the court of appeals reversed the trial court's dismissal of the takings claim.

Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process.  Due process requires that before one is deprived of life, liberty or property, a constitutionally fair process must be imposed. Here, while the homeowners asserted constitutionally protected interests in the money to pay the fines and the cottages themselves, the Town never deprived them of those interests. First, the fines were never paid. Second, the Town's "regulatory actions do not constitute a deprivation of property because they represent limitations on the use of property that 'inhere in the title itself, in the restrictions that background principles of the State's law of property and nuisance already place upon land ownership.'" Sansotta at 14.  "By acting to abate what it believed was a nuisance, the Town simply kept the Owners from using their property in a way that was prohibited by law." Id. at 15. 

Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection. The homeowners asserted that they were treated differently than the 14 other cottages that were also located in the public trust area. This was true but it did not matter. The Town had a valid reason for treating the cottages differently:  they were closer to the ocean and obstructed the passage of emergency vehicles to a greater extent.  "Notwithstanding the Owners' contentions about all parts of the beach being valuable, different parts of the beach may present different issues with regard to public safety.  Hence, the difference in the locations of the cottages on the beach is a legitimate basis for treating them differently."  Id. at 20. 

Fifth Amendment Takings. The homeowners asserted that their property was taken without just compensation. However, the homeowners had not completed the process of pursuing their compensation claim under state law. This was fatal to a federal claim, which required that a "plaintiff must first have sought compensation 'through the procedures the State has provided for doing so.'" Id. at 21.  In state court, however, the homeowners could assert a taking, even though they had not completed the compensation process.  "[U]nder San Remo Hotel[, L.P. v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 545 U.S. 323, 346 (2005)], a plaintiff may bring a takings claim in state court without having already been denied compensation by the state, if he also brings his state-law claim for just compensation." Id. at 23.  And here was the rub:  the Town had removed the case from state court, where the homeowners takings claim was ripe. But in so doing, the Town asserted the claim became unripe in federal court. Id. at 24.

The Court of Appeals was not willing to "judicially condone[] manipulation of litigation." Id. at 25.  The requirement for a federal court to wait until the state court has ruled on a just compensation claim, was a "prudential" not a "jurisdictional" requirement.  State courts have more experience in land use matters than federal courts, but that "does not mean that federal courts are incapable of handling them."  Id. at 25.  "A defendant implicitly agrees with this conclusion when he removes a case involving such a state or municipal law to federal court."  Id. at 25-26. Thus, the court refused to apply the state court litigation requirement and reversed the trial court's dismissal of the takings claim. "Based on our conclusion that a state and its political subdivisions waive the state-litigation requirement by removing a case to federal court, the district court erred in dismissing the Owners' takings claim as unripe." Id. at 35.

We find three things of moment in this case and its decision:

First, Nags Head is just one small community on the Atlantic littoral beset by rising sea levels. Yet it has spawned at least three cases that have been litigated to the appellate level.  We can expect many more.

Second, the issues in the rising sea level cases are going to get right down to fundamentals. Constitutional rights will be invoked. This of course suggests the Supreme Court will get involved. We note that it already has.  See Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida, 560 U.S. 2606 (2010).

Third, one of the homeowners' takings claim was based on "redefining private property as public land." Id. at 21 n.16. Observe that the states own the land below mean high water (or mean low water in some cases). As the oceans rise, the states' claims to more and more of the current landowners' shorefront will increase. Is it the case, then, that that is a taking?  If it is, then states better start setting aside some substantial funds to pay just compensation that they cannot avoid. 

The front cover of this month's National Geographic premiers Rising Seas, How They Are Changing Our Coast Lines.  In North Carolina, they are living (and litigating) that.

Climate Change Effects | Climate Change Litigation | Regulation | Rising Sea Levels

Harvey Cedars v. Karan: Condemnation at the Shore and the Evolution of the Common Law

July 29, 2013 23:46
by J. Wylie Donald

If you were a municipality that had to take action and condemn private property for the public good to avert disaster, before you got to court you would be particularly pleased to be able to say, "See, I told you so," pointing to an avoided calamity.  When one New Jersey beachfront community, the Borough of Harvey Cedars, took such action, the longed-for serendipity avoided both the trial and intermediate appellate courts. But then fortune smiled and the Borough enjoyed a favorable result before the New Jersey Supreme Court in Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan, decided just this month and setting the stage for condemnation actions up and down the New Jersey coast (and potentially elsewhere).

In 1973 the Karans acquired a beachfront home on a small lot (11,868 sq. ft.)  in Harvey Cedars.  It’s a lovely three-story home, the kind of place where one can sit on the porch on the second story and watch the children playing on the beach. Except that is, if there is a 22-foot dune between the home and the water. In that case, to see the little ones one would need to climb up to the third floor. One might, then, be a little incensed if the Borough came and offered $300 for a quarter of the property to put up such a dune.  And the fact that the dune would protect the home from the ravages of a rising and violent ocean, such as that delivered by Superstorm Sandy, might not ameliorate the unjustness of it all. 

That story is pretty much what happened to the Karans.  With funding from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Borough planned to construct a $25 million, 22-foot-high sand dune along its shoreline; it would be placed on private property where necessary by way of an easement. Such a barrier, it was hoped, would protect local homes and businesses from future storm surges. Many beachfront homeowners saw the benefit of a protective dune and voluntarily accepted the easement. Others, including the Karans, did not. The asserted benefits did not sit well with Harvey Karan, who argued that, in nearly four decades of owning the home, he had not seen “a lick of water” reach its living quarters.  We note that this was not a particularly surprising result as the living quarters were on the second and third floor.  In any event, in November 2008, the Borough moved to acquire a portion of the Karans’ property by eminent domain. Unsurprisingly, the Karans rejected the Borough’s offer of $300 “just compensation” and took legal action.

In an evidentiary proceeding, the Karans moved to prevent the Borough’s appraiser, Donald M. Mollier, Ph.D.,  from testifying that the dune’s storm protection increased the value of their home—thus decreasing the amount of compensation to which they were entitled. Instead, they maintained that the project provided “general benefits” to all Harvey Cedar residents, ones that could not be taken into account when determining compensation. Relying on prior New Jersey precedent, Sullivan v North Hudson County Railroad Co., 51 N.J.L. 518 (E. & A. 1889), the court supported this view, instructing the jury:  “the Borough is not entitled to any credit nor should the amount of just compensation to the Karans be reduced by virtue of any general benefit which they may receive along with other property owners in the Borough as a result of the dune and beach replenishment project.”

The jury returned an award to the Karans of $375,000, for the taking of a quarter of their lot and the loss of their view. In early 2012 the Appellate Division affirmed, reasoning "that the advantage accruing to the Karans from the newly constructed dune was not a special benefit but rather 'a classic example of a general benefit,' which cannot be used to offset the loss from a partial taking."

The Borough persisted nonetheless and filed an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. And then came Sandy with its unprecedented devastation up and down the Shore. Over 100 killed, sixty-two billion dollars in damage (much of it uninsured) in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. Places like Mantoloking, without a protective dune, were shredded. Places like Harvey Cedars came through relatively unscathed. Hmmmm.  Maybe there's something to the protective dune idea.

The Jersey Shore Partnership thought so and filed a motion seeking leave to be allowed to submit out of time a brief amicus curiae, which the Court granted. Rather than get caught up in an analysis of general and specific benefits, the Partnership took a different tack. Lead counsel, Dave Apy, crafted an argument based on the modern method of any condemnation award:  fair market value.  (Full disclosure:  Mr. Apy mentored me as a younger associate; he has a knack for cutting through legal clutter.)  Rather than staying "mired in technical, nonsensical arguments" over general and special benefits, the courts should look to a simple test:  "whether the benefits, however characterized, are ascertainable and directly enhance the remaining property."  The other amicus, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, likewise advocated for a fair market value approach.   

 The New Jersey Supreme Court bought the Partnership's and the NJDEP's argument. In its ruling, it cited a wide body of case law, dating back to the Magna Carta, and supporting the notion that when private property is taken, the State must pay just compensation. In a complete taking, just compensation is measured by fair market value. The Court saw no reason not to apply the same concept to a partial taking. After laying out the history that led to Sullivan (the basis for the trial court's decision), the Court turned to Mangles v. Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders, 55 N.J.L. 88 (Sup. Ct. 1892), decided only a few years after Sullivan and by the same judge. "'Just compensation' could not 'be ascertained without considering all the proximate effects of the taking."  Id. at 92.  "'Any benefit arising from the taking and public use of the property 'which admits of reasonable computation may enter into the award.'" Id.

The remainder of the Court's opinion in Karan bolsters the position of fair market value. It concludes that the general/special benefit distinction "is at odds with contemporary principles of just-compensation jurisprudence."

Thus, there would be a new trial, where “the Borough will have the opportunity to present evidence of any non-speculative, reasonably calculable benefits that inured to the advantage of the Karans’ property at the time of the taking.” "In short, the quantifiable decrease in the value of their property -- loss of view -- should have been set off by any quantifiable increase in its value."

Justice Holmes said in The Common Law, "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience."  In Karan, logic required that Sullivan’s hoary general and special benefit distinction would carry the day, as it did before the trial court and the Appellate Division.  Experience (bearing the nom de guerre Sandy), however, led to a different result.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Rising Sea Levels | Weather

Walking on Eggshell Skulls: Louisiana's Levees Take on the Oil and Gas Industry Over Coastal Land Degradation

July 24, 2013 23:20
by J. Wylie Donald

Ground zero for climate change and rising sea levels in the United States is not a status to which any state aspires.  Florida distastefully remembers 2005 when 4 hurricanes – Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne - roared ashore, all within six weeks.   Delaware worries that 8-11% of the state will be submerged by 2100.  Today we learned that Louisiana’s concerns over rising sea levels and hurricanes have resulted in an enormous lawsuit, Board of Commissioners v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co LLC, against 100 oil and gas companies based on their activities in Louisiana’s coastal lands over the last century, and the lands' ongoing demise.  “Unless immediate action is taken to reverse these losses and restore the region’s natural defense, many of Louisiana’s coastal communities will vanish into the sea.“  Complaint at 2.

The plaintiff, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East, is a governmental entity whose ”mission is to ensure the physical and operational integrity of the regional flood risk management system.”  To accomplish that end, it concluded that in order for Louisiana's coastal communities to survive into the next century it needed to restore and rejuvenate Louisiana’s coastal lands.  Its complaint explains how the system is supposed to work:

5.2 Coastal lands, including wetlands and marshes, are an integral natural complement to the Authority’s man-made flood protection system. 
5.2.1.  Coastal lands are the first line of defense for south Louisiana’s communities against the destructive force of hurricanes. 
5.2.2. Those lands form a buffer that reduces the height and energy of hurricane storm surge and waves, thereby aiding the Authority in its mission to protect south Louisiana.
5.2.3. Hurricanes lose intensity as they travel over land.  Hence, the more land that a given hurricane must traverse before reaching Louisiana’s coastal cities, the weaker that hurricane’s impact on those communities, and concomitantly, the more effective the levee system.

Notwithstanding the coastal lands’ importance, they had been (allegedly) substantially degraded by the activities of oil and gas companies.  These companies had built a network of canals that was alleged to continue "to introduce increasingly larger volumes of damaging saltwater, at increasingly greater velocity, ever deeper into Louisiana’s coastal landscape and interior wetlands.  The increasing intrusion of saltwater stresses the vegetation that holds wetlands together, weakening – and ultimately killing – that vegetation.  Thus weakened, the remaining soil is washed away even by minor storms.”  Id. ¶¶ 6.7.1-7.2

With the loss of coastal lands, the levees stand to become “de facto sea walls,” a function the levee system is not designed for. Id. ¶ 5.11.

The Authority’s complaint sets forth the regulatory framework for commercial work in the coastal lands.  First, there is the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, which forbids “any person to … in any manner whatever impair the usefulness of any … work built by the Uniteds States for the preservation and improvement of any of its navigable waters or to prevent floods.”  As noted above, the loss of coastal lands would lead to impairment of the levees struggling to serve as seawalls.  Second, Clean Water Act permits impose obligations for the maintenance and abandonment of canals, and for the minimization of environmental harm.  The permits, it was alleged, had not been complied with.  Third, the Louisiana State Land Office granted rights-of-way, which carried with them maximum right-of-way widths and obligations to minimize environmental effects and to indemnify the State for third-party damages.  The defendants' rights-of-way had all allegedly eroded and now exceeded their permitted size.  Last, state and federal Coastal Zone Management Acts imposed additional obligations.  Id. ¶¶ 9.1-9.4. 

From that framework, the Authority argues a duty of care arises, breach of which by the energy companies supports a claim for negligence.  That claim is joined with claims for strict liability, public and private nuisance, third-party beneficiary rights, and a local favorite, natural servitude of drain.  Under the last claim it is asserted, damages and injunctive relief are owed because “Parties, such as Defendants, may not take actions that increase the flow of water across another party’s land, as the Defendants’ activities in Louisiana’s coastal lands certainly and demonstrably have done.”  Id. ¶ 23.

Commentary already circulating quotes the plaintiff's attorneys on the potential damages at  “many billions of dollars.”  Although the damages are very large, many will look at this as just another wetlands preservation lawsuit. 

We take a different perspective.  The destruction alleged took place over a very long time, by hundreds of entities, with the support of the commercial and political establishments of Louisiana.  The status quo in Louisiana was ongoing energy development in conjunction with degradation of coastal lands.  No one asserted that billions of dollars were owed.  What changed? 

A fundamental tenet of this blog is that climate change will create winners and losers.  The losers are not going to go quietly; instead, they will look around and see if they can be made whole by someone else.  The first wave of climate change liability cases sought to tag the emitters of greenhouse gases with liability; they were uniformly unsuccessful.  Is Board of Commissioners the vanguard of the next wave targeting for liability those entities whose activities make defending against climate change much harder?

There is a theory in tort about the eggshell skull.  As stated by the Seventh Circuit in Schmude v. Tricam Industries:  “If a tortfeasor inflicts a graver loss on his victim than one would have expected because the victim had some pre-existing vulnerability, that is the tortfeasor's bad luck; you take your victim as you find him.” 

Here the Authority might not have done anything, or done it much later, had climate change not exacerbated the dire conditions faced by Louisiana.  Will Louisiana’s eggshell skull be a model for others seeking to be made whole for their losses from climate change?  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, visiting practitioners may wish to practice saying coquille d'oeuf.     

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Climate Change Litigation | Rising Sea Levels

Maryland Reassesses Local Sea Level Rise: More of Us Are Going to Get Wet

June 26, 2013 22:14
by J. Wylie Donald

We have looked at Delaware's perspective on rising sea levels several times in recent months.  Now it is Maryland's turn.  Today a panel of experts led by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science issued an update to Maryland's 2008 assessment:   Updating Maryland's Sea Level Rise Projections.  The conclusion is disturbing.  In the passage of just five years, the anticipated sea level rise in the mid-Atlantic states now exceeds the previous high range.

The origin of the report is  Governor Martin O’Malley’s December 28, 2012 Executive Order on Climate Change and “Coast Smart” Construction, which called for updated sea level rise projections based on "an assessment of the latest climate change science and federal guidance."  Maryland has the fourth longest tidal coastline in the continental United States and loses 580 acres every year  to shore erosion.  Id. "Thirteen Chesapeake Bay islands once mapped on nautical charts have been lost." Id.  The State has 450 facilities and 400 miles of roads within areas likely to be impacted within the next 100 years.  Id.  Hence its interest in rising seas.

And the seas are rising, faster than they have before.  More and better data confirm this. 

(1) the 20th century experienced the highest rate of sea-level rise in the last 2,000 years;
(2) global mean sea level (GMSL) rose at an average rate of 1.7 mm yr-1 during the 20th century based on tide gauge records and an average of 3.2 mm yr-1 from 1993 to the present based on satellite measurements;
(3) rates of melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets accelerated; and
(4) sea level is likely to rise more than estimated by the IPCC 2007 assessment.

Update at 3.  With respect to the mid-Atlantic region, "relative sea-level rise of 7-8 mm yr-1 has been measured at Maryland tide gauges between 2002 and 2011", although scientists consider this period too short to identify a trend.  Update at 7.

Sea levels are eminently local attributes and affected by much more than the flows from the melting of arctic ice and the warming of the oceans.  The researchers considered, among other things

  • the amount of water being stored behind dams or pumped out of groundwater aquifers (expected to be a net addition over the next century);
  • the weakening gravitational effect of melting arctic ice masses that "counter-intuitively result[] in sea-level decline in nearby polar regions and sea-level increase in tropical regions";
  • glacial isostatic adjustment, which is the rebound of land once weighed down by the glaciers, as well as the subsidence of the "forebulge" of unglaciated lands at the front of the glacier;
  • the slowing of the Gulf Stream, which has the effect of causing coastal waters to rise; and
  • the increase in tidal ranges and storm surges, which are amplified by rising sea levels in an enclosed body of water like Chesapeake Bay.

In case all of that was a little complex, the researchers obligingly "put it all together."  The best estimate of sea level rise in Maryland by 2050 is 1.4 feet, with a range of 0.9 to 2.1 feet; by 2100 it is 3.7 feet with a range of 2.1 to 5.7 feet.  Update at 15.  To put this in perspective, the best estimates in the 2008 Maryland Climate Action Plan (p 53) were by mid-century a range of 0.6 feet to 1.3 feet or by 2100 2.7 to 3.4 feet.   Now the best estimate exceeds the high range of only five years ago.

As Governor O'Malley put it in his executive order, "The State of Maryland must take action now to ensure that State infrastructure investments in vulnerable coastal areas are "Coast Smart" - fiscally wise and structurally sound."  We couldn't agree more.

In closing, we don't often look far out into the future in this blog because its intended focus is the practical here-and-now impacts of climate change on the practice of law.  But the Update offered a sobering perspective on the unshakeable legacy our action or inaction today leaves to our children and grandchildren:

differences in 21st century emissions trajectories begin to have significant consequences for the rate of sea-level rise toward the end of this century and result in even greater differences during the next. In other words, steps taken over the next 30 years to control greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize global temperatures during this century will largely determine how great the sea-level rise challenge is for coastal residents in subsequent centuries. There is not much they could do then to slow sea-level rise because of the inertia of ocean warming and polar ice sheet loss.  Update at 11.

Regulation | Rising Sea Levels

Delaware’s Most Vulnerable County Abstains from Vote on Sea Level Rise Mitigation Options

May 31, 2013 08:47
by J. Wylie Donald  & Jameson Tweedie

In our continuing our discussion (see here and here) of the Delaware Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee ("DSLRAC"), the efforts of the DSLRAC took an ironic - but perhaps predictable - turn when the delegate for the Delaware county likely to be most directly affected by sea level rise abstained from voting on any of the dozens of options developed by the DSLRAC to address the effects of sea level rise.

After developing a list of over 60 "Options for Preparing Delaware for Sea Level Rise" (PDF available here), over the past months the DSLRAC held public engagement sessions in each of Delaware's three counties and solicited public comments on the proposed options. These options fell within four broad types of responses to sea level rise - whether to accommodate, avoid, protect or retreat from the consequences of sea level rise. After consideration of the public comments, the DSLRAC - which includes representatives from municipal governments, business advocacy organizations, citizen advocacy organizations and the cabinet-level departments of the State of Delaware - voted on each of the options before the final list will be presented to Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin P. O'Mara. The Sussex County delegate, however, abstained from voting on any of the options, reportedly at the request of Sussex County Council.

Sussex County's abstention from the debate - and thus its refusal to vote for any of the options to mitigate the effects of sea level rise in Delaware - is ironic given the effects of sea level rise the DSLRAC found were likely to directly impact Sussex County, which is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay. For example, the DSLRAC found that between 35,000 and 55,000 acres of land in Sussex County was likely to be inundated by sea level rise by 2100, or between 6% and 9% of Sussex County (see here (PDF) at 19). The inundated areas would include low lying resort communities on the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware Bay and the Inland Bays (id.). In addition to the obvious impacts on tourism and costal recreation, the DSLRAC found that Sussex County was likely to particularly feel the impact of sea level rise on a broad range of infrastructure and resources, including such key items as roads, bridges, evacuation routes, future development areas, and the availability of drinking water (see id. at x-xiii). These risks were apparently not enough to sway the County Council, with one Councilman reported as disputing the existence of sea level rise ("They don't have no facts. It's almost BS, to be honest with you"; "If it hasn't happened in the last 7,000 years, why's it going to do it now, all of a sudden?"), despite the scientific evidence presented by the DSLRAC. Another was reported to have stated that "Sixty percent of our tax base comes from one mile off that beach," but nevertheless suggested that the effects, if any, were "years down the road" and could be dealt with at a later date.

Despite the position of Sussex County Council, various coastal towns within Sussex County, including Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach, are looking at actions they can take without County involvement to address the potential impacts of sea level rise, and the Delaware General Assembly has declared the week of September 14-22, 2013 "Sea-Level Rise Awareness Week" to, among other things, "increase the awareness, education and knowledge of Delaware residents" about sea level rise. While the DSLRAC proceeded with the vote on options despite the Sussex County abstention, and will present those options to Secretary O'Mara, Sussex County's position highlights the controversy that continues to surround climate change and sea level rise, even in the places likely to be most affected by sea level rise, and despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists.

Climate Change | Rising Sea Levels


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