One man’s attempt to spruce up and expand an old Priest Lake marina has galvanized lakeside homeowners to join forces in defense of Idaho’s “crown jewel.”
Next month, Bonner County officials will consider a request from George Deshler of Blue Diamond Marina for a conditional use permit and a zone change so he can expand the small marina.
If that’s approved, he can build a boaters lounge, add a store and parking, create three RV rental spaces and six rental units.
Neighbors are concerned about erosion, traffic through a nearby wildlife refuge and the possibility of a community living on houseboats in the bay.
They also worry that the development sets a dangerous precedent.
Deshler bought the aging facility in 1991 and later received an encroachment permit from the state so he could rebuild the seawall and install 48 boat slips.
“We’ve taken what was an armpit of Cavanaugh Bay and made it an attractive location,” Deshler said.
But his expansion plans have some neighbors worried. From their perspective, the changes afoot are hurting the landscape, the water quality and Priest Lake’s charm.
It’s just one example, they say, of the gradual degradation of the lake.
Bonner County Planner Martin Taylor said the dispute isn’t new.
“It’s just the age-old battle of not wanting any more development at the lake, or yeah, we want more, because it sustains the economy,” Taylor said.
But this time, the issue has led to the formation of the Priest Lake Association, an organization devoted to providing a voice for property owners in management decisions that affect the lake.
The association’s motto is “Protecting Idaho’s Crown Jewel.”
The interim president of the organization, Larry Stanley, is a Spokane resident who’s been visiting Priest Lake since he was a child. Now he owns a lot and house on Cavanaugh Bay.
“I’m not a wild-eyed environmentalist,” Stanley said. “I believe there should be a balance. There’s a reasonableness to everything you do.”
He’s noticed a decline in Priest Lake’s water quality, and he’s worried about Blue Diamond’s plans.
“When I saw the changes, I scratched my head,” Stanley said, referring to construction work at the marina. “What I was observing had not been allowed around the lake.”
Deshler rebuilt a house at the marina only 13 feet from the lakeshore, which is farther from the shore than the previous structure. But the required setback is 40 feet.
Members of the Priest Lake Association complained, so Thursday evening Deshler had a hearing with the county for a variance to the 40-foot setback requirement. Next month, he’ll ask for a zone change and the conditional use permit.
Stanley said it appeared that Deshler already was excavating parts of the hillside, without proper run-off controls, to prepare for the expansion.
“It’s been blown totally out of proportion,” Deshler said. “It’s a very small-scale thing. It’s not a Coeur d’Alene Resort.”
Stanley and others fear that the houseboats they’ve seen moored at the marina and personal watercraft rentals there are a sign of things to come.
Neighbor Loel Fenwick admits he has a personal interest in opposing Blue Diamond Marina’s expansion, but he said his interests aren’t purely selfish.
“It’s being portrayed as ‘Dr. Fenwick has got his private estate, now he wants to dictate to the little guys,”’ Fenwick said.
Fenwick, a semi-retired doctor, owns 420 acres of the Rocky Point peninsula that he’s turned into a public wildlife refuge. He’s hired a wildlife biologist, built three miles of hiking and skiing trails, and even rerouted the county road along the side of the refuge so traffic would be less disturbing to wildlife.
Fenwick doesn’t want heavy traffic to the marina, because access to it means crossing the refuge on another road.
“We found all the effort we made to reroute the road has been made worthless,” Fenwick said. “We’re kind of depressed about it, to put it mildly.”
Fenwick’s particularly concerned about Deshler’s plans to encourage snowmobilers to visit the marina in the winter. The refuge provides critical wintering habitat for white-tail deer, he said.
Fenwick isn’t alone in his concern that if the county rezones the property for commercial use, that will open up all the bay’s shoreline to commercial developments.
“These developments, whether small or large, all have potential to set a precedent,” he said. “This is really a line in the sand that’s being drawn.”
Deshler insists adversaries are overreacting.
“The opposition doesn’t like anything that suggests that the character of the lake might change,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Map of area