Battle Over Property Lines In The Sand Public Demands For Rare Access To Lakefront Pit Residents Against Some Homeowners At Sanders Beach
Debbie Lindberg was trying to enjoy a book and the sunshine last summer when drunken, screaming people frolicked a few feet away along her portion of Sanders Beach.
She tolerated their rude revelry without comment. And when they departed, they thanked her for her patience and generosity by yelling, “We wish we all had it so good.”
Lindberg’s husband, Richard, met similar spite when asking people to clean up after themselves and their dogs.
“They said, ‘Who do you think you are, you rich (expletive)?”’ Lindberg recalled.
These were just two of the surprises that greeted the Lindbergs, who a year ago laid down a lot of money for some of Coeur d’Alene’s most enviable real estate.
They knew when they signed the deal that neighbors liked to use the private beach. They didn’t realize they were setting up house in the middle of a battle zone over who rules the coveted strip of sand stretching from 12th to 15th streets along East Lakeshore Drive.
Coeur d’Alene residents have been using Sanders Beach since shortly after statehood. A tradition of reverence for the beach extends at least to the 1920s, when the City Council made the unusual move of prohibiting private buildings south of East Lakeshore Drive.
But the people with homes on the north side of the street own the land and a stake in one of the Lake City’s most emotionally charged debates. Recently, both sides have asserted more aggressive claims to their right to the territory.
Because public access to the lake is rare - a mere 5 percent of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s shoreline is public - the focus on this bit of beach is intensifying. To everyone’s unhappiness.
“I didn’t sign up for this,” Lindberg says of the public abuse, dirty diapers, broken beer bottles, and other hassles that litter his lakefront address. He is mystified, not only by the raucous partiers, but also by neighbors who mugged his efforts to replace a fence with a concrete seawall even though he had a valid building permit.
“If you want to walk on the beach in front of my house, why would you want to annoy me?” Lindberg said.
The controversy has grown slowly.
When Scott and Mary Lou Reed first moved to Coeur d’Alene in the 1960s, they regularly took their children to the beach.
“Nobody gave any particular thought to who it belonged to,” said Scott Reed, an attorney. “We didn’t get lawyers involved for a long time, so life was nice.”
Public use and private ownership coexisted for decades without turmoil. The Coeur d’Alene Jaycees cleaned up the beach each spring through the ‘50s and ‘60s and the city hauled away the trash, remembers longtime City Council veteran Ron Edinger. Afterward there was a festive weenie and marshmallow roast.
In the last 10 years, however, many of the East Lakeshore Drive homes have changed hands. And the tenor of the public coming to the beach also is different - people seem more likely to pollute with litter and noise.
“You change the mix on both sides and get an explosive situation,” Reed said.
“People have taken advantage of the property owners,” Edinger said.
In recent years, property owners have been challenging the assumption that Sanders Beach is a community resource. And that has not been well received by people who’ve always considered it shared territory.
Recent efforts by residents to make the beach more private have heightened the hostility. Seawalls have been built, developer Joseph Chapman began building a house on the south side of the street this year, and Jack Simpson this month put up an illegal fence.
The Lindbergs also blame the media for perpetuating the public ownership myth and escalating hard feelings.
Confusion is as prolific as unhappiness. The public has had access to the beach via 12th Street since it was first bladed out of the dirt. In the 1960s, then-Mayor Mark Souther negotiated with Potlatch Corp. for public access from the south end of 15th Street to the water.
This created two ways of funneling people to the private ground. Eventually, neighborly use gave way to larger, rowdier crowds.
One legend reports that in the ‘60s the motel owners along East Sherman Avenue told their Canadian customers about the beach. “People didn’t mind 20 or 30 people, but 300 rowdy Canadians were a different story,” Reed said.
Although the Canadians went away, conflicts over beach use have intensified. The most notable include:
A 1972 lawsuit pitting Lakeshore residents Dr. E.R. Fox and Burgess McDonald against the state over construction of concrete seawalls on their lakeshore lots. A District Court judge ruled that the property was private, and the Idaho Supreme Court agreed. That’s been the last legal ruling on the issue of public vs. private ownership.
In the early ‘80s, Dohn Johnson erected a chain-link fence on the west end of the beach, blocking access to his beach property at 1102 E. Lakeshore Drive. Offended beachgoers swam around the fence and trashed the beach. Some even tore down the fence. The anger has subsided, but the fence stands today.
In 1992, Lakeshore resident Roland Almgren had sunbather Shari Jameson arrested for trespassing when she refused to move off his beach. The city had the charges dismissed.
Almgren later erected a “No Trespassing” sign on his seawall, but changed it to one that read, “Private Property, you are welcome to use our beach. Please do not litter. Thank you.”
In 1996, District Court Judge Craig Kosonen ruled that the “ordinary and high water mark” of Lake Coeur d’Alene is 2,121 feet, as opposed to the state’s claim that it’s 2,128 feet. The state has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. If Judge Kosonen’s ruling stands, it means much more of the sand between the water and seawalls is private than previously thought.
Perhaps the most high-profile assault on public sensibilities erupted this fall, when Chapman obtained a building permit and started a house foundation on the south side of East Lakeshore. Neighbors from a block or two away formed the Sanders Beach Preservation Association and successfully stopped the project in court.
The judge based his ruling on the 1928 city ordinance that prohibits building south of Lakeshore Drive. The ordinance was amended in 1965 to allow Sid Smith to build a home on the beach rock between 11th and 12th streets - the house that Johnson later purchased.
“The ordinance was changed for the benefit of one person,” points out Art Manley, a former state legislator and die-hard advocate of public access to Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Legal battles loom. The city is considering action against Simpson for the fence he built last month. Some of his neighbors respect his chutzpah.
Others hate it.
“I was really upset,” said Jennifer Allison, whose family has owned the home west of the Simpson property since 1949. “But it’s not uncharacteristic nor unexpected because some of those people seem to want to grab as much space as they can.
“I don’t think there’s an emotional attachment - it’s a status thing,” Allison continued. “They don’t appreciate there being an uninterrupted expanse of beach or having the children play there.”
Greg Crimp, whose mother still lives in the Lakeshore Drive home where he was raised, also dislikes the newest developments. “The view of the surrounding property owners, the access of the public to the beach, would be forever threatened on all the property if someone were to build a home down there,” Crimp said.
“And fences down to the beach are obnoxious wherever they’re built.”
Simpson could not be reached for comment, but it’s unlikely his fence will end the dispute. There still is a seemingly unchangeable expectation of public access for picnickers, Frisbee throwers, swimmers and dog owners.
“It’s always been open and available to the public since as long as anybody can remember,” Manley said. “Of course, as the years go by, it seems like we lose little pieces of it.”
Growing up at 1217 E. Lakeshore, Crimp never really thought of his family owning the strip of sand south of their home.
“I felt like the grass was ours. I didn’t feel the beach was ours,” he said. “I also didn’t feel you could be kicked off the beach for having a terrible dog or something like that.”
That tolerant attitude has changed over time, however.
“A lot of people down there who are newcomers, they don’t recognize tradition,” said longtime resident Carol Stacey. “They don’t give a hoot about their neighbors.”
The property owners get the feeling that the public doesn’t give a hoot about them.
“They have to put up with terrible, terrible things,” said Al Sorenson, who lives a couple blocks from the beach. “People going to the bathroom under their shrubs. … You can’t blame them for wanting to put a fence up, though I disagree with it.”
During the most recent debate, beach users have blamed the City Council for failing to solve the problem. Mayor Al Hassell says the city has tried for years, always stumbling over a few holdouts among property owners.
“We have tried to buy easements,” Hassell said. “We have tried to buy the property.
“We have always had one or two that say absolutely not.”
The City Council has consistently decided against floating a bond issue during Hassell’s dozen years on the council and as mayor. Condemning the property also has been ruled out.
“We would end up in a court battle for who knows how many years at a cost of who knows how many millions,” he said.
Even offers to help homeowners by picking up litter and providing police patrols have failed, Hassell says, because all of the property owners won’t agree to public access in return for the service.
Hassell wishes the city would have quietly purchased the homes as they came up for sale over the last 30 years, kept the beach area and resold the rest. Today, with the individual price tags topping $1 million, buying the property would be impossible, he said.
Parks supervisor Jeff Biegler said even now cleanup volunteers aren’t always welcome on private portions of the beach. A few groups helping with a Coeur d’Alene Mines-sponsored cleanup in recent years were asked by some East Lakeshore owners to leave their beach alone, he said.
Public access advocates still believe there’s a way. “If we could reach some kind of agreement to use the beach and have the public maintain it, at least that would be something,” Manley said. “The city has not consistently and for a period of time worked hard at it … “If they assign someone who was good at dealing with people, maybe something could be worked out. But you’re dealing with 10 or 12 owners, and they don’t all think alike.”
Allison, who splits her time between a home in Spokane and the family home on East Lakeshore, believes a little realism by beachside residents will help.
“Everyone says that people bring noise and litter,” she said. “I defy anyone to drive down any street in Coeur d’Alene or Spokane or anywhere in this country and not find that.”
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Graphic: Sanders Beach dispute