Facts support public access claims at Camp Bay

By Susan Drumheller
Reader Contributor

The fate of public access to Camp Bay is once again in the hands of the Bonner County Board of Commissioners.

A district judge has sent the matter back to the county to consider developer M3’s offer to build a pathway for the public to walk the roughly half mile to the water, in exchange for the county giving up the last half-mile of Camp Bay Road right of way to the lake.

The hearing has been set for 9 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 19.

In his defense of giving away the public right of way leading to 50 feet of Sagle Peninsula lakeshore, Commissioner Dan McDonald has claimed that the road was never intended to provide public waterfront access.

Sunset at Camp Bay. Photo by Dan Eskelson.

He selectively quotes the petition from the original homesteaders to the county asking for the road, saying it’s needed to provide access for settlers to the store and post office in Glengary Bay. But he omits this part: “The road is necessary to secure an outlet for the settlers to the lakeshore at Camp Bay.” 

People often forget that Long Bridge had not been built at the time of the 1908 petition. It was very difficult for anyone in the Sagle area to get to Sandpoint or their goods to market. 

Serving the needs of these early residents was the Northern Navigation Company, which ran a steamboat between Bayview and Sandpoint, stopping at multiple points between — including Lakeview, Whiskey Rock, Glengary Bay and Sunnyside. A time-card, published in the Sept. 22, 1911 Pend d’Oreille Review, shows that the steamer stopped at Camp Bay at noon on its way from Bayview to Sandpoint.

In another article published in the Jan. 8, 1909 Pend d’Oreille Review, an editor wrote of the difficulties farmers and ranchers had on the peninsula due to the pre-dam fluctuating lake levels: “Situated as we are on the peninsula, with the lake as our only practical route in and out, one can readily understand what a benefit we would derive from a given water level.”

The editor then lists a number products that had to be carried from 10 to 100 feet to get them aboard a boat, and write, “There are several public landings on the peninsula, the more important being those at Glengary, Garfield Bay, Bottle Bay and Camp Bay.” (Bottle Bay and Glengary Bay no longer have publicly owned lake access.)

Since this issue emerged last year, those who support abandoning the public road have confused the facts, disparaged critics of the county’s initial decision to give this public asset away, and cast doubt on whether this 50-foot strip of waterfront was ever, in fact, public. 

But the facts support the contention that it would violate the public trust if the county were to uphold its original decision and give up the road to one of the most beautiful bays in the county, allowing a private developer to gate it off. 

You can’t find it anymore on the county’s website, but the initial application to vacate the road never disputes the public lake access. Instead it states: “Camp Bay is an unpaved road from Sagle Road to the termination at the High Water Mark of Lake Pend Oreille. According to conversations with County Staff, there are no plans or funding available to construct public improvements in this area.“

The public doesn’t need it, they argue, because “there are fully developed public accesses to the Lake just minutes away in Garfield Bay and Bottle Bay which serve the needs of the community.” (Bottle Bay has a commercial marina, but no guaranteed public access.)

Here’s a few other reasons why the public has good reason to believe we have a right to access the lake at the end of the county’s right of way:

• The district judge said the county erred in its staff report when it said there was no public access, even while noting the road ends at the high-water mark. The judge’s order states, “This conclusion is erroneous. … [U]nder the public trust doctrine, ‘the state holds the title to the beds of navigable lakes and streams below the natural high-water mark for the use and benefit of the whole people,’ and that the doctrine ‘preserves the public’s right of use in such land.’”

• In a statement to the commissioners, real estate attorney Toby McLaughlin wrote: “The public right of way over Camp Bay Road was dedicated by means of a 1913 viewer’s report that established the public right of way all the way to the shore of Lake Pend Oreille. At the time, the lake level was lower than it is currently due to later construction of Albeni Falls Dam in 1953. This right of way allows the public to access the lake at Camp Bay, which is a not insignificant resource to the public.”

• In a May 16, 1986, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (Swanson v. the United States) made a decision concerning ownership of land down to Lake Pend Oreille at Talache. Justice Stephens made these two statements that apply to the Camp Bay Road right of way: “Before 1950, Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho was a navigable water of the United States with an ordinary high-water level of 2,051 feet above mean sea level.” And, “the landowner held (and holds) title defined by state law as extending to the old, natural high-water mark.” This means the public owns its 50-foot-wide right of way on Camp Bay Road below the current 2,062.5-foot high-water mark to the lower and older 2,051-foot elevation.

• The county prosecutor and sheriff acknowledged established law and public use when defending the rights of the public to use the 50-foot-wide beach during a recent dispute.

In what appears to be an admission that public access exists now, the developer is offering to build a walking path from the gate a half-mile from the water to the bay. The proposed lake access point would not have the same expansive view as the existing one, it would lack vehicle access and would be next to a community dock by the outlet of a small creek. 

Is it an equal trade to exchange nearly three acres of public land and 50 feet of vehicle-accessible waterfront for a dirt walking path to another location controlled by a private entity? 

While we may value this site primarily for recreation, we could someday need that access for any number of reasons that we can’t imagine now. 

Sometime between 1908 and the present, the public lost two of three other “public landings” on the Sagle Peninsula — Glengary and Bottle bays. It would be a travesty to lose another by allowing a private developer to take over our existing, valuable waterfront access in Camp Bay.

For more information about this issue and the public’s efforts to save Camp Bay access, go to 50feet.net.

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