By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
In its third bout before the Bonner County commissioners, the board voted unanimously to approve an application to vacate the last 2,550 feet of Camp Bay Road to developer M3 ID Camp Bay, LLC during a nearly five-hour public hearing on Dec. 19.
Bonner County originally ruled the vacation “in the public interest” — the determining factor under Idaho law — in April 2021. Camp Bay Road residents Fred and Jennifer Arn filed a petition to review that decision, and it was remanded back to the county for another hearing in February 2022.
Commissioners denied the file at the second hearing on the grounds that it was unclear whether the end of Camp Bay Road provided public access to Lake Pend Oreille. M3 took the issue to court in March, and in September a judge remanded the file back to the commissioners again.
In its third iteration before the board, the application to vacate Camp Bay Road featured promises of a “natural dirt trail measuring between four feet to six feet in width” which would start at the end of the road’s proposed public termination and lead to a 50-foot-wide piece of shoreline in the corner of the bay — the same width that proponents of existing public access allege they already have rights to in the form of county right-of-way.
Commissioners and county legal counsel made repeated requests that those testifying at the Dec. 19 hearing limit their comments to whether the proposed trail was in the public interest, and to refrain from discussing the terminus point of the road or whether public access already exists.
M3 owner Bill Brownlee, in his presentation to the board, called the public access debate “an unknown issue at this time that has not been litigated to finality.” He said M3 hoped to offer the walking path alternative as a way to obtain the vacation “in exchange for guaranteed and undisputed public access to the lake,” and estimated the trail’s cost would be between $100,000- $200,000.
Citing local polls on trail usage and the goals of the Bonner County Trails Plan, Brownlee said that M3 was considering connecting the proposed Camp Bay pathway to existing trails in the area, calling it “a significant public benefit and certainly within the public interest of Bonner County.”
“We should be trying to find a resolution that works for everybody,” he said. “We should be trying to find something that provides the county and ourselves an entitlement that works for the residents of Bonner County, and we think that we’re providing that in this proposal.”
The path proposal saw mixed support from the hearing’s packed audience, with many opponents expressing concerns about the lack of accessibility for the county’s oldest and youngest residents, as well as for kayakers and other water sports enthusiasts who could not realistically haul their equipment down and back up a half-mile dirt trail. There were also questions about trail maintenance, hours, waste disposal and safety due to the proposed public beach’s proximity to large, private docks proposed in the M3 development.
Others questioned the validity of the staff report and its conditions of approval at the time of the hearing, as suggestions by Bonner County Road and Bridge had not been taken into account or published for public review prior to the hearing.
Boise attorney Preston Carter, representing the Arns, said the proposal was not in the public’s interest, but entirely in M3’s interest.
“This proposal is a way for M3 to get what it has always wanted, which is a private road, but you can only vacate that road if it’s in the public interest,” he said.
Carter also stated that if M3 wanted to use polling data to gauge public opinion toward trails, that the county should also consider public opinion toward “this specific proposal.”
“This proposal is not, ‘Should the county create a new trail?’ This proposal is, ‘Should the county vacate an existing road?’ The relevant data are the public comments, which are overwhelmingly in opposition to this proposal,” he said. “If we’re going to look at public sentiment, don’t look at general public sentiment about trails — look at public sentiment about this actual proposal, and the public sentiment on this actual proposal is negative.”
Jennifer Arn called the trail proposal “a carrot they’re dangling so that we’ll go for this and they can have what they really want.”
The idea that M3’s proposed pathway was “generous” came up frequently during the hearing, which also saw several residents in favor of the vacation. Commissioners ultimately echoed many of those talking points, with Chairman Dan McDonald stating during deliberation: “I like this plan.” As to whether approving the vacation would possibly mean losing the disputed public access, McDonald said, “We’re not losing. We have plenty. There’s a lot of public property. There’s lots of public access.”
“I see this as a huge benefit to the public,” he added, “more so than the public access that we’re not really sure exists or not.”
All three members of the board balked at the idea of postponing the vote to a hearing at a later date to allow for proper public notice of the additional conditions proposed by Bonner County Road and Bridge. It was noted that, come mid-January, both McDonald and Commissioner Jeff Connolly would be replaced in office by new commissioners elected in November.
“We’re the people who have been here from the beginning,” Connolly said. “We have sat through hours and hours of testimony. Is anyone more qualified to make this decision than the three of us sitting up here? Absolutely not.”
Commissioner Steve Bradshaw emphasized that he would “defend private property rights” with his “dying breath.”
“What would you have me do? Compromise your personal property rights, or grab hold to something that is guaranteed in your best interest that gives you access to Lake Pend Oreille?” he said.
Commissioners voted unanimously to approve M3’s application to vacate the road as was presented at the time the staff report was published, excluding any changes to the original trail proposal or additional conditions of approval stemming from the comments by Bonner County Road and Bridge.
“The only thing I can say is I hope the applicant is willing to still have those discussions and still work with the county, and I believe that they will,” Connolly said just before the vote. “I truly believe they will.”
Those interested can watch the Dec. 19 hearing on the Bonner County Planning YouTube channel by clicking on the “live” tab.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal