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Case Law Updates on the Environment (CLUE)

Case Law Update Details

Case Title

Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County v. USDOT

Case No.

847 F.3d 1309

Court

U.S. Court of Appeals - 11th Circuit

State

Florida

Date

2/3/2017

Project

Crosstown Parkway Extension

Project Type

Highway

Project Description

The project involved a new bridge across the North Fork St. Lucie River in St. Lucie, Florida. The project was intended to relieve traffic congestion on the two other bridges across the river. The city’s population had tripled between 1990 and 2010 and was projected to continue growing at a rapid pace, and traffic on the two existing bridges already exceeded capacity. After the City of Port St. Lucie prepared reports to select a corridor for the project and to determine viable alternatives that would meet the project’s purpose and need, FHWA prepared an EIS that studied six build alternatives. FHWA then issued a ROD that designated the City’s locally preferred alternative (Alternative 1C) as the preferred alternative for the project. The ROD concluded that there was no feasible and prudent alternative to using Section 4(f) resources because each build alternative would use some 4(f) resources, and that Alternative 1C resulted in the “least overall harm.”

Case Summary

The plaintiffs claimed that it was arbitrary and capricious for FHWA to have selected Alternative 1C in the ROD. The plaintiffs argued that Section 4(f) required FHWA to select Alternative 6A, their favored alternative. In 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida upheld FHWA’s selection of Alternative 1C. In this decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The court upheld FHWA’s determination that Alternative 6A was not a feasible and prudent alternative for avoiding all 4(f) resources. The court also upheld FHWA’s determination that Alternative 1C would have the least overall harm.

Key Holdings

Section 4(f)

Prudent and Feasible Avoidance Alternatives. The plaintiffs challenged FHWA’s determination that their favored alternative (Alternative 6A) was not a prudent and feasible avoidance alternative. FHWA determined that Alternative 6A was not an avoidance alternative because it would require building piers in 0.01 acres of the North Fork St. Lucie River Aquatic Preserve, a Section 4(f) resource. Moreover, FHWA determined that Alternative 6A was imprudent because (1) its split-beam construction method would use substantially more wetlands than alternatives that used pile-bent construction, and (2) it would have severe social impacts.

Wetland Impacts. The court agreed with FHWA that Alternative 6A was imprudent because its spliced-beam design would require using 67 times more wetland acreage than pile-bent construction alternatives (.5188 acres compared with 0.0154 acres). Moreover, the court noted that the agencies with jurisdiction over the affected 4(f) resources preferred pile-bent construction because it would have a smaller impact on adjacent wetlands. “The agencies’ preference . . . combined with the fact that the overall impact on adjacent wetland habitats was so much greater with spliced-beam construction, was sufficient reason to deem that construction method imprudent. This conclusion was neither arbitrary nor capricious.”

Social Impacts. The court also upheld FHWA’s determination that Alternative 6A was imprudent because it would have “severe social impacts.” Alternative 6A would require construction of a new six-lane highway through a residential neighborhood. The new highway would result in the highest number of properties with noise impacts that could not be mitigated with a noise wall, the highest percentage of minority household relocations, the second-highest number of commercial relocations, and substantial visual impacts. The new highway also would disrupt the neighborhood by diagonally bisecting streets that were laid out on a grid, resulting in substantial numbers of dead ends and continuity cuts. Moreover, Alternative 6A was the only alternative with the potential for affecting neighborhoods with a higher-than-average number of minority households. The court explained that FHWA was well within its discretion to conclude that these harms would cumulatively cause severe social impacts that rendered Alternative 6A imprudent.

Reference to “Extraordinary Magnitude” and “Unique Problems.” The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that FHWA’s conclusion was arbitrary and capricious because it did not expressly use the terms “extraordinary magnitude” or “unique problems,” language that appears in the regulation defining an imprudent alternative (23 C.F.R. § 774.17(3)(vi)). The court held that a thorough and detailed explanation is not lacking simply because it did not include those terms.  The court noted that several other courts of appeals—the Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits—also have held that the use of these terms is not required in a Section 4(f) determination.

Least-Harm Analysis.  After determining that there was no feasible and prudent avoidance alternative, FHWA weighed the remaining alternatives to determine which alternative caused the “least overall harm” based on a balancing of the seven factors listed in FHWA’s Section 4(f) regulations (23 C.F.R. § 774.3(c)(1)).  FHWA found that impacts on Section 4(f) resources would be greater for Alternative 1C (2.16 total acres) than for Alternative 6A (0.01 acre), but FHWA also found that Alternative 6A would have far more severe social impacts because it would bisect an established residential area (thereby creating substantial adverse impacts on community cohesion and local mobility as well as substantial visual and noise impacts) and it was the only alternative that would affect a higher-than-average number of minority households.  FHWA found that Alternative 1C would meet the Purpose and Need more effectively than Alternative 6A.  After weighing these and other factors, FHWA determined that Alternative 1C caused the least overall harm. The court concluded that “The FHWA’s least-harm analysis was sufficient, its rationale was clearly explained, and its conclusions were reasonable, rather than arbitrary or capricious.”

The court also noted that FHWA’s 4(f) analysis had carefully considered measures to mitigate harm for each build alternative. FHWA’s analysis rejected spliced-beam construction as a mitigation measure because it would use substantially more land—including wetland habitats—than pile-bent construction. The court concluded that the beneficial effects of the project’s proposed mitigation measures—which included water quality improvement projects, adding 100 acres to affected parkland, and restoring trails and other recreational opportunities—would more than offset the negative impacts of Alternative 1C. 

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