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CITIZENS FOR HONESTY v. COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO

April 14, 2003

CITIZENS FOR HONESTY AND INTEGRITY IN REGIONAL PLANNING AND KARL J. TURECEK, PLAINTIFFS
v.
COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO AND DOES 1 THROUGH 50, ET AL. DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rudi Brewster, United States Senior District Judge

ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Title XII of the Food SecurityAct of 1985 (16 U.S.C. § 3801 et seq.) ("FSA"), governing wetland conservation, is commonly known as "Swampbuster." Any person who produces an agricultural commodity on converted wetland forfeits eligibility for a variety of federal loans and farm subsidies. See 16 U.S.C. § 3821(a). Thus, Swampbuster acts as an incentive for the conservation of wetlands.

The Swampbuster provisions define "wetland" as any property consisting of: (1) hydric soils, (2) wetland hydrology, and (3) hydrophytic vegetation. See 16 U.S.C. § 3801(a)(18). In contrast, the County of San Diego's Resource Protection Ordinance ("RPO") defines "wetland" as any property containing: (1) hydric soils, (2) wetland hydrology, or (3) hydrophytic vegetation. See RPO Art. II, ¶ 16. Clearly, the RPO definition of "wetland" is far broader than the definition found in Swampbuster. Therein lies the dispute between the parties to this litigation.

Plaintiff Karl A. Turecek is the managing general partner of Jacumba Valley Ranch Ltd. Partnership ("Jacumba"), an entity that owns and farms land located in San Diego County ("the County"). Turecek filed with the County a specific plan and an application for a major use permit to develop his property.

In September 1994, Turecek received a letter from the County Department of Planning and Land Use ("DPLU") informing him of the County's intention to apply the RPO definition of "wetland" to his property.*fn1 See Decl. of C. Ellen Pilsecker in Supp. of County's Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pilsecker Decl.") at Ex. B, p.2. (letter dated September 6, 1994). Turecek urged the County to utilize the federal definition, and in March 1995, he received a letter from the DPLU stating that if "the land under tillage is not wetland, under federal definitions, then the [DPLU] will recommend that the appropriate hearing bodies also accept that conclusion." See Pilsecker Decl. at Ex. D, p. 10. (letter dated March 28, 1995). Whatever became of the DPLU's promised recommendation is unknown to the Court, but the County made no attempt to enforce the RPO against Turecek while his aforementioned application was pending for more than 8 years. For reasons apparently unrelated to the RPO, the application was finally denied on January 15, 2003.

Turecek and Citizens for Honesty and Integrity in Regional Planning ("CHIRP")*fn2 filed this action on September 17, 2002, seeking a declaratory judgment (28 U.S.C. § 2201) that the RPO definition of "wetland" is preempted by the FSA's Swampbuster provisions. On October 28, 2002, the County filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to subsections (b)(1) and (b)(6) of FRCP 12. The County maintained that a dismissal was warranted because: (1) the plaintiffs lacked standing; (2) the matter was not ripe for adjudication; and (3) the Swampbuster provisions do not preempt the RPO.

In an Order filed December 20, 2002, the Court found that Plaintiff CHIRP lacked standing to adjudicate and dismissed CHIRP's claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Defendant County of San Diego's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint Pursuant to FRCP 12(B)(1) ("Order of December 20, 2002) at 6. The Court held that Turecek had standing and the matter was ripe for adjudication, but that the ultimate question of preemption ought to be handled in the context of a summary judgment motion rather than a motion to dismiss. See id. at 5-6. Accordingly, the Court invited the parties to file cross-motions for summary judgment.

The Court heard oral argument on the cross-motions on Monday, April 14, 2003.

II. STANDARDS OF LAW

A. Summary Judgment

The standard for summary judgment is well known. Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See FED. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A fact is material when, under the governing substantive law, it could affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Freeman v. Arpaio, 125 F.3d 732, 735 (9th Cir. 1997).

The outcome of this case does not turn on facts, for it ultimately presents a pure question of law, i.e., whether a federal statute that narrowly defines the term "wetland" preempts a local ordinance that broadly defines "wetland." As such, this matter is "an excellent candidate for summary judgment. . . . ." Valdez v. Hunt and Henriques, 2002 WL433 595, at * 2 (N.D. Cal. March 19, 2002). See also Smith v. Califano, 597 F.2d 152, 155 n. 4 (9th Cir. 1979) cert. denied sub nom. Smith v. Harris, 444 U.S. 980 (1979) (stating that summary judgment is appropriate where the sole dispute concerns the proper interpretation of statutes and regulations).

B. Federal Preemption

The Supremacy Clause, U.S. Const. Art. VI, cl.2, invalidates state laws that "interfere with, or are contrary to, federal law." Davis, 307 F.3d at 851 (citation and quotation omitted). Federal preemption may be divided into three categories: (1) express preemption; (2) conflict preemption; and (3) field preemption. See id. Express preemption occurs when Congress states expressly, within the federal statute, its intention to preempt state law. Conflict preemption is implied whenever compliance with both the federal and state law is physically impossible or when the state law "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress." California v. ARC America Corp., 490 U.S. 93, 100-101 (1989). Field preemption occurs whenever ...


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