By Susan Drumheller
It’s been out of the public eye for months, but the battle over public access to Lake Pend Oreille at Camp Bay is not over. The latest court hearing over the issue is Wednesday, Oct. 25 in Coeur d’Alene.
It’s easy to get lost in the legalese of the attorney’s briefs, but the passion jumps off the page.
This has been an emotional contest over 50 feet of waterfront with million-dollar views.
Perhaps it would be less bitter if the larger community didn’t feel so powerless as the wealthy move in, buy up land, drive up property values and economically push out the working class.
Here’s the bare-bones timeline:
• April 7, 2021: Bonner County commissioners vote to vacate a half mile of Camp Bay Road and allow development company M3 to close it off for a 400-acre private development.
• Neighborhood residents Fred and Jennifer Arn challenge the decision, arguing conflict of interest among county staff and loss of lake access. The judge agrees and sends the decision back to the commissioners.
• Feb. 16, 2022: Second public hearing over the road vacation request, and this time the commissioners vote against vacating the road, saying that the status of the waterfront access at the end of Camp Bay Road is uncertain, and encourage a legal challenge to resolve the issue in court.
• Spring/summer 2022: M3 challenges the decision and proposes the court send the matter back to the commission to consider an offer to build a walking/bike path to another waterfront location in exchange for vacating the road.
• Winter 2022: The judge again remands the decision to the commissioners and gives them the leeway to determine testimony scope.
The upcoming court hearing concerns a challenge to the latest decision, which was held shortly before Christmas and the end of two commissioners’ terms. The room was packed with people in favor of keeping the road open to the public. The staff mentioned that written comments were received, but didn’t note the overwhelming opposition to closing the road, including a letter from Idaho Fish and Game.
The commissioners limited the scope of the hearing to discussing the merits of building a gated pathway to the lake and providing 50 feet of waterfront access at a new location. The pathway would be non-motorized and only open to the public from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The commissioners would not allow any consideration of whether or not they are giving up superior lake access via Camp Bay Road. Any testimony that spoke to the existing public access was off limits. The county was able to enshrine its official position that the status was unknown, even though a previous court ruling stated county planning staff erred in claiming the road does not provide lake access.
The developer delivered a neat solution for the commissioners with the alternative pathway — but the access is only good for able-bodied people and the exact location or quality of the waterfront remains uncertain. Generally, it would be located in the west corner of the bay, near the Camp Bay community docks.
At the county hearing, the developer also introduced another tantalizing offer: to provide public access to neighboring U.S. Forest Service lands and the Mineral Point trail system. As an avid mountain biker who has ridden those trails for decades, helped build them and even once snuck through the Camp Bay property to get to Gamlin Lake, I understand the offer’s appeal.
But it was not part of the scope of the hearing, and created a wedge between interest groups — hikers, runners and bikers versus kayakers, elderly and disabled, for whom walking the half-mile path to the lake would be a hardship and severely limit access.
Since the hearing, the developer has been in discussions with the county about the trails and has filed a construction easement for the pathway to the lake, but no easement has been filed specifically for public access to the USFS lands. County planning officials said they cannot discuss the trails or road, citing the ongoing litigation.
In approving the road vacation, former-Commissioner Dan McDonald said that Bonner County has plenty of public waterfront access, approximately 40 locations, and his claim was included in the commissioners’ “findings of fact,” though no one had the opportunity to dispute or debate that claim during the hearing.
Kayaker and lake access advocate Kelly Courtright later conducted his own research and found only 13 publicly owned and road accessible boat ramps on Lake Pend Oreille.
Perhaps the most controversial reason for approving the road vacation, however, was the commissioners’ view that it was a matter of private property rights.
“This board unequivocally has always, as a priority, held private property rights in position No. 1, over public interest,” Commissioner Steve Bradshaw said. “Public interest would be second to that.”
Commissioner McDonald made statements indicating he considered it a private property rights issue as well.
Camp Bay Road, however, is a public road, owned by the public. And Idaho Statute (I.C. 40-203) requires that a decision to vacate a public road must be determined to be in the public interest in order for it to be legally justified.
If the Arns prevail and the court again sends the decision back to the commissioners, it’s uncertain how the new board will rule.
If the road is lost to the public, either by court decision or the new commission, the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in our county may be symbolized by a gate that blocks the views of — and less able-bodied from — Camp Bay.
Susan Drumheller is a former conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League and serves on the board of directors for Project 7B, a local nonprofit that advocates for responsible land use planning and public involvement in land use decisions.
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