WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is making it easier for landowners to bring a court challenge when federal regulators try to restrict property development because of concerns about water pollution.

The justices ruled unanimously Tuesday that a Minnesota company could file a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the agency’s determination that its land is off limits to peat mining under the Clean Water Act.

The ruling is a win for property rights and business groups that said it was unfair for government agencies to decide what land is subject to complex environmental laws without a court ever deciding whether the agency is right.

It was the second time in four years that the high court sided with property owners against the government in a dispute over the right to challenge a designation of protected wetlands.

The Obama administration argued that the Hawkes Company could only contest the finding by seeking a permit, an expensive process that could take years to resolve. The company said it should be able to challenge the order immediately in federal court without having to spend more than $100,000 on a permit or risk hefty fines.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Corps’ decision was the kind of final decision that carries a risk of major criminal and civil penalties if landowners don’t go along. He said property owners shouldn’t have to wait for the agency to “drop the hammer in order to have their day in court.”

In a separate opinion, three of the court’s conservative justices renewed concerns about “the reach and systemic consequences” of the Clean Water Act.

Justice Anthony Kennedy called the law’s reach “notoriously unclear” and said it raises “troubling questions regarding the government’s power to cast doubt on the full use and enjoyment of private property throughout the nation.”


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