Otay Mesa Property, L.P. v. Department of the Interior

Fairy shrimp critical habitat designation violates the ESA

Cases > Property Rights > Otay Mesa Property, L.P. v. Department of the Interior
Lost: The federal district court ruled against property owners in August 2018.
Case Court: District of Columbia District Court

Three property owners in San Diego County own 57 acres that they planned to use for a new recycling center and landfill. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the property as critical habitat for the endangered Riverside fairy shrimp, the development plans were stymied. The owners challenged the designation because there’s no evidence the fairy shrimp were on the property or that the property was essential to the species’ conservation. The Service also failed to consider the economic impacts and other adverse effects of the designation. PLF filed a brief in federal district court supporting the property owners’ motion for summary judgment. In August 2018, the court ruled against the property owners.

Otay Mesa Property, Rancho Vista Del Mar, and Otay International own several parcels of undeveloped land in the Otay Mesa area of San Diego County. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated a significant portion of this land as critical habitat for the Riverside fairy shrimp, a small freshwater crustacean listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. While the ESA requires the designation of critical habitat, it also requires that the designation occur on the basis of the best available scientific data and with consideration of economic and other relevant impacts. Areas may be excluded from designation if the benefits of the exclusion outweigh the benefits of the designation, unless the exclusion will result in the species’ extinction.

The Service designated thousands of acres of critical habitat for the Riverside fairy shrimp in five Southern California counties, including a portion of Otay Mesa’s property. At the time of the listing, the property did not contain the physical and biological features necessary to the conservation of the shrimp and the Service never investigated the economic or other effects the designation would have on the productive use of private property. In the trial court, on cross-motions for summary judgment, PLF submitted an amicus brief arguing that the Service failed to conduct a proper analysis of the economic consequences of designation, in violation of several key statutes. In August 2018, the court ruled against the property owners.

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What’s at stake?

  • The Fish and Wildlife Service must fully disclose and consider the economic and other effects of critical habitat designations on property owners.
  • Government agencies must engage in a transparent decision-making process that allows the public to receive information and to offer input. Here, the public was deprived of the opportunity to comment on how the critical habitat designation adversely affected the planned recycling center.

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