The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed claims against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) related to channel-dredging operations. Vill. of Bald Head Island v. Corps, Nos. 11-2366, -2368 (4th Cir. 4/15/13).

At issue was a project to widen and, ultimately, to realign a portion of the Cape Fear River channel which the Corps had maintained since the 1800s. In connection with planning and impact assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Corps included conditions that provided for it to deposit beach-quality sand dredged during the project onto two local beaches. The environmental assessment also anticipated maintenance dredging every two years and anticipated placement of beach-quality sand from those efforts on the two beaches. Subsequent Corps letters to the village reiterated the plan.

After the project was completed and several semiannual maintenance dredging projects had occurred, the Corps, in 2010, informed the city that because of budget restraints it would not dredge in the area where beach-quality sand would be found and would not be adding sand to any beach during the upcoming maintenance cycle. The Village of Bald Head Island sued the Corps, asserting that the environmental assessment and the Corps’ letters constituted a promise by the Corps to add sand to the two beaches on an every-other-year schedule. Both the trial court and the Fourth Circuit, however, found that they lacked jurisdiction over the claims under the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and could not exercise admiralty jurisdiction over the contract claims.

The Fourth Circuit held that the Corps’ decision not to dredge or place beach-quality sand in any given year is not the kind of “action” to which the APA is directed. It also found that even if the dredging or failure to dredge were “action,” the action was not “final” for purposes of the APA. In addition, the court determined that it lacked maritime jurisdiction over the Village’s assertion that the Corps’ letters constituted contracts because the principal objective of the alleged contracts was not maritime commerce, but beach maintenance.