Minnesota Court of Appeals Addresses Matter of First Impression under State Environmental Rights Act
Posted on September 20, 2015
On August 10, 2015, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of a Minnesota Environmental Rights Acts (MERA) claim because the city ordinance alleged to be violated did not constitute an environmental quality standard, limitation, or rule under MERA. State ex rel. Afremov v. Remes, A14-2037 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 10, 2015).
The case involved a dispute between neighbors over an alleged violation of the Wayzata City Code‘s prohibition against the granting of private easements for lakeshore access. To maintain an action under MERA, a plaintiff must make “a prima facia showing that the conduct of the defendant has, or is likely to cause the pollution, impairment, or destruction” of natural resources. Minn. Stat. § 116B.04. “Pollution, impairment, or destruction” is defined as (1) “any conduct by any person which violates, or is likely to violate, any environmental quality standard, limitation, rule, order, license, stipulation agreement, or permit of the state or any instrumentality, agency, or political subdivision thereof which was issued prior to the date the alleged violation occurred,” or (2) “any conduct which materially adversely affects or is likely to materially adversely affect the environment.” Minn. Stat. § 116B.02, subd. 5. Appellants in this case invoked only the first prong of this definition, alleging that a violation of the Wayzata easement ordinance constituted a violation of an “environmental quality standard, limitation, rule, order, license, stipulation agreement, or permit.”
The court noted that no court had yet interpreted this phrase and commended the district court’s reference to the more developed case law on the second prong of the definition (“materially adversely affects”) to help interpret the first. Following the district court’s lead, the court held that under the first prong of section 116B.02, subdivision 5, an “environmental quality standard, limitation, or rule” is “a standard, limitation, or rule with a primary purpose of protecting Minnesota’s natural resources.” The court concluded that the Wayzata lakeshore access ordinance did not have protection of natural resources as its primary purpose; it was not an environmental quality standard for purposes of MERA and therefore, the claim failed.