This dispute involves a challenge to plans by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to improve State Route 222. The Third Circuit was asked to determine whether an economic injury alone falls within the “zone of interests” protected by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Third Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling and dismissed the case, holding that economic injury alone does not support standing under NEPA. The court also affirmed the lower court’s decision to deny these plaintiffs an opportunity to amend their complaint because the allegations they sought to add still failed to establish standing.
FHWA and PennDOT made plans to widen Route 222 to five lanes, replace certain traffic lights with a dual lane roundabout, and construct two storm water detention basins on either side of the highway. Maiden Creek Associates, L.P. (MCA) owns eighty-five acres of land in Maidencreek Township that it sought to develop into a large shopping center. Along with the Board of Supervisors of Maidencreek, MCA alleged that the plans to improve Route 222 would interfere with the shopping center development. MCA challenged the highway improvements before the Reading Area Transportation Study in July, 2014. However, the plans were approved in August, 2014.
MCA filed suit against FHWA and PennDOT in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The claim was brought under the Administrative Procedure Act because NEPA has no civil action provision. MCA claimed that the plans to improve the highway were based on inaccurate and incomplete information. Furthermore, MCA claimed that the improvements would compromise its commercial development and result in unsafe traffic conditions, which would also harm the environment. FHWA and PennDOT moved to dismiss, arguing that MCA alleged only economic harm related to the shopping center project. The district court granted this motion, finding that, without more than allegations of economic harm, MCA lacked standing to challenge under NEPA.
On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed. While the court agreed that the highway improvements would result in increased congestion, change the traffic patterns, and lessen the commercial viability of the shopping center, it found these injuries to be outside NEPA’s scope of protection. The harms alleged by MCA may, at times, fall within that scope, but they must be sufficiently linked to imminent or threatened environmental harm. According to the court, holding otherwise would distort the distinction between social and environmental injuries.
Bob Turchick, Law Clerk