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Case Law Updates on the Environment (CLUE)

Case Law Update Details

Case Title

Opus Woods Conservation Association v. Metropolitan Council

Case No.

2016 WL 755617

Court

U.S. District Court - Minnesota

State

Minnesota

Date

2/25/2016

Project

Southwest Light Rail

Project Type

Transit

Project Description

The Southwest Light Rail Transit Project would connect downtown Minneapolis to the southwestern Twin Cities. The project was sponsored by the Metropolitan Council (“Met Council”), a regional transportation planning organization, with funding from the Capital Investment Program, which is administered by FTA. Under state law, Met Council was required to obtain the consent of each municipality through which the transit line would run. In October 2012, the agencies issued a DEIS, which examined four light rail transit (LRT) alternatives and identified one of those alternatives as the locally preferred alternative (“LPA”). In July 2013, the agencies announced that they would prepare a SDEIS to address potential impacts from proposed changes and refinements to the preferred route.

While the agencies were preparing the SDEIS, Met Council sought and obtained the consent of all six local governments of the municipalities through which the project would pass, including the City of Minnetonka. Met Council entered into an MOU with Minnetonka, which stated that it “memorializes the Parties’ present intentions and understandings” and “does not limit the alternatives or mitigative measures that the Council may undertake in the development and construction of the SWLRT Project.”

The agencies published the SDEIS in May 2015. After the SDEIS was published, Met Council revised the scope of the project and initiated another round of municipal consent to consider changes reflected in the SDEIS. As of the date of this court decision, an FEIS and ROD had not been issued.

Case Summary

The plaintiffs filed this lawsuit in March 2015, prior to publication of the SDEIS, and thus prior to any final decision by FTA to approve the project. They alleged that Met Council had violated NEPA by selecting a project design alternative and initiating the municipal consent process prior to issuance of a ROD by FTA. The plaintiffs also claimed that Met Council violated Section 4(f) by excluding a nearby trail and open space from its analysis. Finally, the plaintiffs claimed that the agencies violated the state Municipal Consent Statute. The court dismissed all three claims.

Key Holdings

Litigation Procedure

Ability to Bring NEPA Claim Prior to Final Agency Action.  In a prior case, Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis v. FTA, the court had held that a NEPA claim may be brought directly against a project sponsor, prior to completion of the NEPA process, to prevent the sponsor from taking actions that could bias the outcome of the NEPA process.  The court described this type of NEPA claim as “a narrow cause of action exists ... against a state or local actor that is taking action prior to the completion of final federal environmental review which may ‘eviscerate the federal remedy.’”  Based on that prior decision, the court assumed for purposes of this decision that plaintiffs could bring a NEPA claim against Met Council prior to completion of the NEPA process.  The court then focused its NEPA analysis on determining whether the plaintiffs had actually alleged sufficient facts to support their predetermination claim. 

Ability to Bring Section 4(f) Claim Prior to Final Agency Action.  The plaintiffs argued that they should be able to bring a Section 4(f) claim prior to completion of the NEPA process. The plaintiffs relied primarily on the court’s prior decision in Lakes and Parks Alliance, in which the court found that a NEPA claim could be brought prior to completion of the NEPA process to prevent the project sponsor from taking actions that could bias the outcome of the process. The court concluded that the factors that supported a NEPA cause of action were not present in the Section 4(f) context, and it held that there were otherwise insufficient grounds to support finding an independent cause of action under Section 4(f). Thus, the court concluded that it had no jurisdiction under the APA to hear the Section 4(f) claim, and it dismissed the claim.

NEPA

Predetermination. Relying on the court’s prior ruling in Lakes and Parks Alliance case, the plaintiffs contended that Met Council had violated NEPA by obtaining municipal consent for the preferred alternative prior to issuance of a final EIS and ROD.  The court rejected this argument.  First, the court held that “NEPA anticipates some preapproval with state and local bodies,” so the act of obtaining municipal consent is not enough by itself to establish a violation of NEPA.  Further, the court concluded that the plaintiffs in this case had not pled sufficient facts in support of their NEPA claim, because their allegations “are not sufficient to suggest that Met Council irreversibly committed itself to a route before final environmental review.”  In reaching this conclusion, the court noted that the MOU “does not contain any language suggesting the parties foreclosed other options” but instead “generally describes an agreement to work cooperatively, and it recognizes that review is ongoing.”  Based on these facts, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ predetermination claim.

State Law

Minnesota Municipal Consent Statute. The plaintiffs argued that Met Council violated the Minnesota Municipal Consent Statute, which requires that a city have access to “the physical design component of the preliminary design plans” before voting. In particular, the plaintiffs contended that the agencies violated the statute by engaging in the municipal consent process with a DEIS that did not include a Section 4(f) analysis for a nearby trail and open space. The court held that the most reasonable interpretation of the statute did not require preparing a DEIS and Section 4(f) analysis for the cities prior to their consent vote. Therefore, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim.

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