WETLANDS

Supreme Court declines to take Puerto Rico canal case

The Supreme Court announced today it would not intervene in a dispute out of Puerto Rico relating to the restoration of a canal and wetlands in San Juan.

A public land trust called the Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña had sought and failed to prevent the land it oversaw from being returned to government ownership, as was required by a law passed by the Puerto Rican Legislature in 2009.

The restoration plan, initially approved by the Legislature in 2004, was to include various environmental improvements to the Martín Peña Canal and surrounding wetlands.

The project is due to include dredging and the creation of a conservation strip along the canal banks.

The entire area has, since the mid-20th century, been inhabited by people moving to the city from rural areas.

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Wetlands and parts of the canal had been filled in and trash and sanitary waste discharged into the waterway, according to the Puerto Rican government's brief in the case.

To resolve the problem, the land trust was granted title to various properties previously owned by Puerto Rico and the city of San Juan.

But in 2009, the Legislature decided to amend the law, making the policy decision that it was better for the government to retain ownership of various parcels of land. That left open the possibility of individual parcels being sold to private parties at a later date, which the land trust objected to.

One of the project goals was to minimize the displacement of people who lived on the land, the trust maintained.

When the 2009 law was passed, the trust fought back, saying the transfer was an unlawful taking under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

Both a federal district judge and the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

The legal question was whether the government can change its rationale for why a private property seizure had a "public purpose" after it was challenged in court.

In its brief, the Puerto Rican government said that the 2009 law change had no bearing on the original goal of restoring the canal and surrounding land.

The amendment "left intact all of the public purposes, projects and objectives which seek to eliminate conditions harmful to the public," the brief stated.

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