Eye On Boise

Cottage-site case draws crowd as lawyers argue over constitutionality

There's a full courtroom at the Ada County Courthouse today for a hearing in the cottage site lease case, in which cabin owners on state-owned lands at Payette and Priest lakes are arguing they should be able to extend their previous leases, and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is arguing that a state law exempting cabin-site leases from conflict auction requirements is unconstitutional. A judge already issued a preliminary injunction finding the law unconstitutional. It protects state endowment cottage site leases from conflict auctions at the end of the lease terms, partly on the grounds that some of the leases have been in the same family for 50 years and conflict auctions “caused considerable consternation and dismay to the existing lessee at the prospect of losing a long-time lease.”

The state Land Board is required to manage state endowment lands for maximum long-term returns to the endowment's beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state's public schools - and not for other purposes.

More than 50 people, many of them lease holders, are watching as the attorneys for the various sides offer their arguments on two summary judgment motions. The constitutionality issue focuses on the meaning of the word "disposal:" The Idaho Constitution says state endowment lands shall be "carefully preserved and held in trust, subject to disposal at public auction for the use and benefit" of the trust's beneficiaries.

The cabin owners are arguing that "disposal" just means sale, and shouldn't be interpreted as covering their leases. Attorney Phil Oberrrecht, representing Payette Lake cottage site owners, cited Black's Law Dictionary and Webster's dictionary definitions of the word "disposal" to bolster his argument. "How does one dispose of his real property? By renting it? I don't think so. That's how you manage it," he said. "This is the common meaning. ... If you're going to dispose of something, you get rid of it - you don't go store it someplace or give it to temporary possession by somebody." Fourth District Judge Michael McLaughlin drew laughter when he told Oberrecht, "I'm just glad you didn't quote from Wikipedia."

Deputy Attorney General Clay Smith, representing Wasden, cited a string of Idaho Supreme Court cases and told the court, "It has to work this way because that's what the Constitution said." He told the court, "It is a lease. And any suggestion to the contrary is simply untenable. The only issue before the court is how the term 'disposal' shall be construed."

Attorney Merlyn Clark, representing the state Land Board, didn't offer arguments on the constitutionality issue, but spoke against the lessees' motion to renew their leases. "There's no option to renew, there's no contractual right to renew," Clark told the court. "Only if the board determines to offer a right to renew does one exist, and not otherwise." The Land Board has offered lessees both a one-year extension of their 10-year leases that expired Dec. 31, and an additional two-year extension after that, but at a higher rental rate.

The state Land Board unanimously supported legislation this year to repeal the law exemption cabin sites from conflict auctions on grounds it's unconstitutional; the bill, SB 1145, passed the Senate in March on an 18-16 vote but never came up for a committee hearing in the House.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Russell covers Idaho news from the state capitol in Boise and writes the Eye on Boise blog.

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