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Scripps Ranch: Development Ditched

In California, there are many developments. The below was not tried in the San Diego County Superior Court and is used for illustrative purposes only. Our law firm of Law Office of Scott C. Soady, A Professional Corporation, LLP would be pleased to offer you a complimentary and confidential consultation. Please feel free to e mail or call our office.

Developers bought 12 acres in a hilly, rural area, with plans to build homes on the property. Because surface water pooled on a large central part of the land after heavy rains, the owners channeled the excess water into a roadside ditch. The roadside ditch was connected to a series of waterways that eventually reached a river eight miles away.

The developers’ plan hit a major snag when they were sued by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps contended that the roadside ditch was a waterway of the United States that fell under the protection of the Clean Water Act and the jurisdiction of the Corps. With that premise, the developers first needed a permit from the Corps before digging the drainage ditch on their property.

While the Corps exercises no control over isolated wetlands, it has jurisdiction over wetlands that are adjacent to navigable waters and their tributaries. In particular, the Clean Water Act requires a permit from the Corps for the discharge of fill material into waters that are in the Corps’ jurisdiction. When the contractors piled the excavated dirt on each side of the 1,100 foot-long drainage ditch, this constituted the “discharge” of fill material into wetlands without a permit.

A federal court took the side of the Corps in holding that a permit was required. First, the court deferred to the Corps’ interpretation of the regulation under which the tract to be developed was regarded as having wetlands. Second, the adjacent roadside ditch was a tributary of navigable waters, even though water from the ditch flowed through several other nonnavigable watercourses before reaching the river and later the Chesapeake Bay. The court accepted the Corps’ interpretation of “tributary” as encompassing all of the streams whose water eventually flows into navigable waters.

The court required the developers to fill in the drainage ditch on their property and restore their wetlands to their pre-violation condition. It rejected the developers’ argument that a more reasonable remedy would have been to allow the ditch to stay by removing the fill to a nonwetlands part of the property.

Developers are well advised to carefully evaluate whether any existing ditches or drainage swales are linked to navigable water, however indirectly, before dredging or filling what might appear to be an isolated wetland beyond the jurisdiction of the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

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