About 100 people are crowded into a meeting room at the state LBJ building this afternoon for a public hearing on lease rents and terms for state-owned cottage sites on Payette and Priest lakes. Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said, “We kind of expected the crowd, but not this large.” As he spoke, a cell phone went off in the crowd. “I forgot to announce, if your cell phone goes off, it’s a hundred bucks to the public schools fund,” Ysursa said to good-natured chuckles.
The cottage sites in question are state-owned land that’s rented to people who build and maintain cabins on them. The leaseholders pay the state rental fees based on a percentage of the market value of the lot each year. The money – about $4 million last year – goes to fund state schools and universities. The cabin owners also pay property taxes on the buildings, separately, to the local county. All the state’s leases are up in 2010, on both lakes, and with recent huge jumps in land value, many lease holders are worried they’ll no longer be able to afford to keep their longtime family cabins.
“I think we all know why we’re here,” Payette Lake Cabin Owners Association president Jim Young told the crowd, showing a graph of lease rates for cabin sites there from 2000 to 2008. The line rose sharply up, like one side of a volcanic cone. Young said his family’s Payette Lake lot is proposed to rent for $50,000 in 2008. So the family decided to sell – but no one wanted to buy. “The instability has killed the market for leased property at Payette Lakes – it’s killed it,” Young said. “I don’t think there is a market.”
Mike Fery, who has a cottage site at Pilgrim Cove on Payette Lake, said, “My cottage site rent has increased an average of 27 percent per year since 2001. In 2001, it was $5,000. In 2008, it will be $32,500. … It’s not affordable, not attainable by 99 percent of Idahoans.”
Bud Belles, president of the Priest Lake State Lessees Association, said the average leaseholder on that lake has been there for more than 30 years. A large majority, he said, are “middle income folks.” Cabin owners understand that the state Constitution requires the state to manage its endowment lands for maximum long-term returns, he said, but he and other cabin owners said those returns are endangered by massive price jumps and uncertainty surrounding state-owned cabin sites. “What we do object to are the huge jumps and the inconsistent policy,” he said.
Denny Christenson, a lease holder on Priest Lake, said the current arrangements encourage the replacement of rustic cabins in the pines there with huge mansions that fit with the high land rental rates. Unlike U.S. Forest Service leased lots there, state lots on Priest Lake have few restrictions on cabin construction, said Christenson, an architect. “If we continue along this path, we will see huge homes lined up along the shoreline like elephants at a watering hole.”
No decisions are expected today, but Ysursa and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna were listening closely. They comprise a subcommittee of the state Land Board charged with figuring out what terms Idaho should offer on its new cabin site leases in 2010. Said Ysursa, “Our goal is to listen.”