US Supreme Court says no bright-line exception to the Takings Clause for temporary flooding caused by Corps action

by Gary Taylor

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. United States
(U.S. Supreme Court, December 4, 2012)

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission owns a wildlife management area along the Black River that that is forested with multiple hardwood oak species and serves as a venue for recreation and hunting. In 1948, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Clearwater Dam upstream from the management area and adopted the Water Control Manual, which sets seasonally varying rates for the release of water from the dam. Periodically from 1993 until 2000, the Corps, at the request of farmers, authorized deviations from the Manual that extended flooding into the management area’s peak timber growing season. The Commission objected to the deviations on the ground that they adversely impacted the management area, and opposed the Corps’ proposal to make the temporary deviations part of the manual’s permanent water-release plan. After evaluating the effect of the deviations, the Corps abandoned the proposed Manual revision and ceased its temporary deviations.

The Commission sued the United States, alleging that the temporary deviations constituted a taking of property that entitled the Commission to compensation. The Commission maintained that the deviations caused sustained flooding during tree-growing season, and that the cumulative impact of the flooding caused the destruction of timber in the Area and a substantial change in the character of the terrain, necessitating costly reclamation measures. The Court of Federal Claims’ entered a $5.8 million judgment in favor of the Commission; however, this judgment was reversed by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that temporary government action may give rise to a takings claim if permanent action of the same character would constitute a taking. It held, however, that government-induced flooding can give rise to a taking claim only if the flooding is “permanent or inevitably recurring.”

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.  Citing back to Penn Central the Court noted that takings claims most frequently turn on situation-specific factual inquiries, as opposed to bright-line legal tests. The Court cited its own cases that affirmed that government-induced flooding, and seasonally recurring flooding, can constitute takings. The Court has also ruled that takings temporary in duration can be compensable. None of the Court’s previous decisions authorizes a blanket temporary-flooding exception to the Court’s Takings Clause jurisprudence.  The Court interpreted The Corp’s primary argument as being that reversing the Court of Appeal’s decision risks disrupting public works dedicated to flood control. While the public interests in this case are important, the Court did not consider them to be categorically different from the interests at stake in the many other Takings Clause cases in which the Court has rejected similar arguments.  The Court declined to address the Corps alternative argument that damage to property, however foreseeable, is collateral or incidental; it is not aimed at any particular landowner and therefore is not compensable under the Takings Clause because it was first tendered at oral argument and not aired in the courts below.

Because the Federal Circuit rested its decision entirely on the temporary duration of the flooding it did not address other factors relevant to the takings inquiry, such as the degree to which the invasion is intended or is the foreseeable result of authorized government action. the character of the land at issue, the owner’s “reasonable investment-backed expectations” regarding the land’s use, and the severity of the interference. Thus, remand to address these issues was warranted.

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