On March 17, 2016, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee of the United States Senate approved amendments to the most recent funding legislation for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016, that, among other things, appear to preempt to preempt local and state efforts to regulate the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”).  

Federal preemption is the displacement of state and local laws which seek to govern some aspect of a responsibility that Congress views as assigned by the Constitution exclusively to the federal government.  Preemption by statute is not uncommon in legislation dealing with transportation, and its relationship to interstate commerce.  For example, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, 49 U.S.C. § 41713, specifically “preempts” local attempts to control “prices, routes and service” of commercial air carriers by local operators or jurisdictions.  Similarly, the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”) preempts local efforts to establish airport noise or access restrictions.  The Senate’s current amendments, however, appear, at the same time, broader in scope, and more constrained by exceptions than previous legislative efforts.  They also hit closer to home for the average American concerned about the impact on daily life of the proliferation of UAS for all uses, including, but not limited to, the delivery of packages.  
 


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The decision of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Idaho in SilverWing at Sandpoint, LLC v. Bonner County, a case that has been “hanging fire” for almost two years, was worth the wait.  On Friday, November 21, 2014, the Court granted Defendant Bonner County (“Bonner County”) summary judgment on all Plaintiff SilverWing at Sandpoint, LLC’s (“SilverWing”) federal claims for inverse condemnation, or “taking,” of private property by a public entity without just compensation, in violation of the 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or violation of a plaintiff’s constitutional or other federal rights by a person acting under color of state law.  See, e.g., Monell v. Department of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978).  In addition, the Court granted summary judgment on SilverWing’s state law contract claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.   

In this case, SilverWing claimed that Bonner County had taken its property by implementing a plan for the airport, an Airport Layout Plan (“ALP”) approved in accordance with the regulations promulgated by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), that showed the single runway at Sandpoint Airport moving 60 feet to the west, toward SilverWing’s property.  SilverWing argued that forcing the movement of a taxiway that already been constructed to service the “hangar homes” in the development, and thus causing it to incur upon the five lots closest to the runway, making them unbuildable, caused a loss to SilverWing of $26 million.  The Court ruled that implementation of the requirements of the ALP was a federal requirement arising out of federal responsibility for aviation safety and not within the discretion of Bonner County.  
 


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California’s unprecedented drought provided the impetus in Sacramento in the closing weeks of the Legislature’s 2013-14 session for the passage of sweeping new regulations governing groundwater. The new rules, which Gov. Brown likely will sign, amount to a broad re-write of California’s existing groundwater law, the first substantial changes to the law in approximately one hundred years. And with the new rules comes significant new authority for a state agency, drawing upon potentially billions of dollars in new fees, to implement new groundwater management plans over the objections of local water authorities. 

Orange County’s groundwater management system, accomplished across numerous governmental jurisdictions and which has, so far, spared Orange County from the full effects of the drought, is held up as the model for the new state scheme. But the legislation goes well beyond anything done in Orange County. Major changes are coming in the way California regulates and allocates its ground water, and in the way our citizens pay for that water.


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The California Court of Appeal last week reversed a lower court decision that would have indefinitely delayed the development by Newhall Land and Farming Company of 21,308 residential units, 629 acres of mixed use development, 67 acres of commercial use, 249 acres of business park, and 1,014 acres of open space in northwestern Los Angeles County over the next 25-30 years (“Project”).  The lower court’s decision had originally granted the Petition for Writ of Mandate brought by, among others, the Center for Biological Diversity (“Respondents”), challenging, among other actions by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (“DFW”) (“Appellant”), the revised Joint Federal/State Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (“EIS/EIR”) for the Project.

While the Appellate Court’s 112 page decision addressed numerous causes of action brought by Respondents in the trial court, one of the most unique and far reaching was its disposition of Respondents’ claim that the EIS/EIR’s baseline for assessing the cumulative impacts of the Project’s Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) emissions is a procedural issue properly evaluated under the “failure to proceed in a manner required by law” standard, applicable to procedural actions, and that, employing the correct standard, the EIS/EIR’s analysis was predicated on an illusory baseline.  In a decision that is likely to be adopted in the adjudication of other California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) actions challenging the evolving state and federal GHG standards, the Appellate Court firmly disagreed. 
 


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In an exercise of regulatory zeal, El Paso County, Colorado (“County”) now requires that City owned Colorado Springs Airport (“Airport”) obtain a permit from the County for any changes in airport physical development or operations that might affect nearby property located in the County. 

Purportedly under the authority of the Colorado Areas and Activities of State Interest Act, § 24-65-101, et seq., the Board of County Commissioners (“Board”) “has specific authority to consider and designate matters of state interest . . . and to adopt guidelines and regulations for administration of areas and activities of state interest. . .”  Pursuant to that purported authority, by Resolution No. 13-267, June 6, 2013, and recorded at Reception No. 213077196 of the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, “the Board designated certain areas and activities of state interest” and established “a permit process for development in certain areas of state interest,” Resolution No. 13-530, Resolution Amending Guidelines and Regulations for Areas and Activities of State Interest of El Paso County, and designating additional matters of state interest.  December 17, 2013.  The new areas of state interest designated in the Resolution include: “site selection and expansion of airports,” Resolution, p. 3, § 1.  The County has interpreted the permit process to extend to “runway extension, noise and other impacts that might affect property owners . . .,” Gazette, January 17, 2014, quoting Mark Gebhart, Deputy Director of County Development Services Department. 

Therein lies the rub. 
 


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Spurred on by Congress, FAA has issued a proposed policy revising its current position “concerning through-the-fence access to a federally obligated airport from an adjacent or nearby property, when that property is used as a residence.”  77 Fed.Reg. 44515, Monday, July 30, 2012.  FAA’s current position, set forth in its previously published interim policy of March 18, 2011, 76 Fed.Reg. 15028, prohibited new residential “through-the-fence” access to Federally obligated airports. 

The change came in response to Congress’ passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”) on February 14, 2012.  Section 136 of FMRA permits general aviation (“GA”) airports, defined by the statute as “a public airport . . . that does not have commercial service or has scheduled service with less than 2,500 passenger boardings each year,” to extend or enter into residential through-the-fence agreements with property owners, or associations representing property owners, under specified conditions.  77 Fed.Reg. 44516.  Sponsors of commercial service airports, however, are treated quite differently. 


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On March 27, 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) proposed a Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants (“Carbon Standard”), setting national limits on the amount of carbon pollution power plants built in the future can emit.  The rules are a reaction to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), in which, among other things, the Supreme Court held that greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (“CO2”) are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.  EPA was charged by the court with issuing an “endangerment finding,” i.e., a determination that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare which was issued on December 15, 2009. 

Immediately upon their initial promulgation, the Carbon Standard generated more contention than power plants generate greenhouse gases.  The Wall Street Journal charged, in an article entitled “Killing Coal,” that “because the putative ‘regulatory impact’ would be zero, there are also no benefits.”  It went on to say that, because the rule would apply not only to new plants but also to every plant upgrade or modification in existing facilities; and because the technology required to meet the standard is still speculative, the EPA’s real goal must be to put a stop to the use of coal in electricity generating. 

The EPA immediately fired back, characterizing the critique of the Carbon Standard in, among others, the Wall Street Journal, as examples of “fact free assault.”  Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy pointed to the “example” that, in fact, “this standard only applies to new sources – that is power plants that will be constructed in the future.  This standard would never apply to existing power plants.”  Moreover, again pointing to the Wall Street Journal editorial, she stated “the proposed rule explicitly does not apply to facilities making such modifications.  In fact, EPA did not propose a standard for any modifications.”

The proposed Carbon Standard speaks for itself. 


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On March 28, 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced their first settlement of an enforcement action addressing Federal Clean Air Act (“CAA”) violations in the marine engine manufacturing and ship building industries.  Under that settlement, Coltec Industries, Inc. (“Coltec”) and National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (“National Steel”) have agreed to pay a civil penalty of $280,000 and spend approximately $500,000 on an environmental project to resolve alleged violations of the CAA and the EPA’s marine diesel engine air rules.  Coltec is a subsidiary of EnPro Industries, Inc. and operates Fairbank Morse Engines which supplies marine propulsion and ship service systems to the United States Navy and Coast Guard.  National Steel is a subsidiary of General Dynamics which designs and builds support ships, oil tankers and dry cargo carriers for the United States Navy and commercial markets.


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In what might be a surprising decision in any other Circuit, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling in Barnes v. U.S. Dept. of Transportation, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Case No. 10-70718, August 25, 2011, which, while narrow, begins the process of eroding both the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) long held position that “aviation activity . . . will increase at the same rate regardless of whether a new runway is built or not,” Barnes, at 16285, and the Federal Court’s traditional deference to it. City of Los Angeles v. FAA, 138 F.3d 806, 807-08, n. 2 (9th Cir. 1998).


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Much has been made by progressive bloggers and commentators of the 17 energy investments owned by Judge Martin Feldman of the Federal District Court in New Orleans. Judge Feldman recently granted a preliminary injunction to energy company challengers to the Obama Administration’s May 22, 2010 moratorium on deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Those commentators missed the point. While Judge Feldman may, or may not, have breached the Canon of Judicial Ethics by deciding a case in which he had a financial interest, it is Chevalier, Allen & Lichman’s view, based on extensive experience in litigation against government agencies in the Federal courts, that Judge Feldman made manifest errors of law by failing to grant deference to the Department of the Interior in its determination that further drilling without additional safety inspections would endanger the public safety, and by allowing the economic interests of drilling companies to carry the weight in the balance of harms.


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