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Property Owners Can’t Sue the FAA Over Project

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Property owners can't sue the Federal Aviation Administration for approving public funds for proposed airport improvements, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton granted the FAA's motion for dismissal of a claim that it granted public money for a private project in violation of the Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (URA).

The Border Coast Regional Airport Authority operates the Del Norte County Regional Airport, also known as Jack McNamara Field. The Authority consists of representatives from several communities in southern Oregon and northern California, according to the complaint.

The airport has until the end of 2015 to come into compliance with the FAA's design standards for runway safety areas. Doing so, however, means closing roads and acquiring lots in a nearby subdivision to make up for the loss of wetlands as result of the improvements.

The Pacific Shores Property Owners Association says the Authority wants private property owners "to bear the cost of the environmental impacts to widen its airport runway."

The association said "in attempting a quick grab for federal money available from the FAA, the Authority has attempted to slip under the radar and avoid environmental review of the significant impacts of mitigation using Pacific Shores property, violating FFA procurement rules."

Property owners weren't told about the Authority's plans, but found out about them "inadvertently" in 2012 and still don't have an official description of them.

"Furthermore, the apparent mitigation program would use public money to purchase private property to placate state environmental agencies which have long coveted the private lots for their wardens' playground," according to the complaint. "Thus, the 'project' would use public monies with no public purpose, constituting a gift of public funds in violation of the California constitution."

The land in question, however, also consists of "low-lying coastal dunes that are essentially undevelopable," according to the Authority, as explained by Hamilton in her order. "Moreover, no infrastructure has been developed in 50 years, there is no sewer system or water delivery system serving the lots, septic tanks are not permitted because the soil is sand and the groundwater is close to the surface, and the few structures that are located there are trailers with no apparent sanitation systems."

Pacific Shores filed a petition and complaint for writ of mandate June 19, 2013, asserting four claims against the Authority for violation of the takings provision under the Fifth Amendment and Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a claim for inverse condemnation damage, violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and violation of the Constitutional prohibition against private gifts of public money.

The FAA filed a motion for dismissal based on lack of subject jurisdiction, failure to state a claim and judgment on the pleadings. The Authority and defendant intervenors, including several individuals, the Northcoast Environmental Center and Smith River Alliance, made a motion for judgment

Hamilton granted the motion the FAA's motion, stating in part that given "there is no private right of action under [the URA], the court finds there can be no private right for landowners to assert a claim against the federal government for allegedly failing to obtain 'satisfactory assurances' that a state agency has complied with [the URA]."

She continued: "Here, [Pacific Shores] has not alleged that the FAA failed to obtain any assurances from the Authority before providing funds (or even before approving a 'program' or a 'project' or 'any grant to' or 'contract or agreement with' a state agency 'under which federal financial assistance will be available'). Nor has [Pacific Shores] alleged that any property has been acquired from its members for use in the project."

Hamilton also granted dismissal to the Authority.

"The court declines to exercise jurisdiction over the supplemental state law claims for inverse condemnation damages, CEQA violations, and violations of the California Constitution, which are hereby dismissed without prejudice to refilling in state court," she wrote.

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