Thomas Villegas, a Nebraska landowner who purchased 80 acres of mixed farmland, pasture and river bottoms, is suing the U.S. EPA for a $300,000 fine. Villegas and his wife purchased the land for recreation and hunting and, upon doing so, found a large amount of dead and decaying trees along with a heavy amount of an invasive grass species that disrupts native ecosystems. After working diligently to clean and restore the land, Villegas received the notice of the fine from the EPA, along with a direct phone call and eventually an EPA agent directly on his property.
EPA accused Villegas of dumping “dirt, spoil, rock, culverts, trees and sand into the waters of the United States,” on what EPA claims are 5.7 acres of wetlands and 210’ of Platte River tributaries. While Villegas is defending himself against the claim, the judgment from EPA stays within the agency. An in-house Appeals board would start the process over even if the Nebraskan defended himself successfully the first time.
The issue highlights what many have witnessed time and again— when an agency takes a farmer or landowner to court, the agency very rarely loses. An attorney from the Pacific Legal Foundation who is representing Villegas, says a trial-by-jury could have significant ramifications for landowners in similar circumstances. “Having government agencies play prosecutor, judge and jury is not what our founders intended,” says Poon.
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