When Larry Panattoni calls, Kootenai County officials listen, and listen closely.
When Panattoni complains about trash or cars parked illegally at the Hauser Lake North boat launch, the county doesn’t waste any time cleaning it up or towing away the offending vehicles.
When someone tried to forcibly remove the gate to the boat launch last week, Panattoni called and county waterways workers hurried to repair the damage.
If they don’t respond, the county - and the public - could lose one of two boat launches on Hauser Lake, which once was called Sucker Lake.
“We have to keep it clean. When cars are parked there and not towed, it becomes a strike against us,” explained waterways supervisor Kurtis Robinson. “After so many strikes, the property reverts back to the owner.”
The owner, despite popular belief, is Panattoni.
The county didn’t believe it two years ago when Panattoni moved to Hauser Lake and tried to negotiate an agreement then.
“They wouldn’t give me the time of day,” Panattoni said.
So the landowner took the county to court. The case was set to go to trial this fall, but the county agreed to settle instead.
“They had a deed … conveying the property to them,” explained county civil attorney Scott Wayman. “The county did not have a deed to the property.”
The settlement placed new restrictions on the popular boat launch, and angered some people who have become accustomed to a 24-hour dock facility.
People have used the boat launch and dock since it was built by the county in 1977. The owner at the time, Russell Sala, believed the property to be his and complained to county commissioners.
In an affidavit to the court, Sala said a county commissioner told him they would reduce his taxes for the use of the property. Sala never took it any further than that.
When he bought Sala’s property and moved in in 1995, Panattoni and his wife Barbara were disturbed by the frequent loud parties, garbage and broken beer bottles at the launch site and were determined to do something about it, he said.
“I challenged it and prevailed,” Panattoni said.
Now, hours are restricted from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. A post and cable keep cars out during the off hours, at a cost to the county of $3,000. Another gate blocks access to the boat dock. Security officers are paid $2,200 a year by the county to open and close the gates.
According to the agreement, the county also has to police parking, and tow away vehicles parked in the roadway or in the dock parking area after hours.
“If the county more than six times in any year fails to promptly remove from the property any person or vehicle violating said provisions,” the agreement stipulates, then the property reverts automatically to the Panattonis.
Panattoni said he’s seen more than six violations this summer, but he isn’t pressing the issue - yet.
“It’s an education process that we’re going through with the public reacting to change,” he said. “We really won’t know until next summer.”
Some people tore down signs that the county posted. Others left trash in protest. Somebody pulled off the cable that blocked access after hours.
Many just called the county to complain. The waterways staff has taken several angry calls from fishermen and other users, said Sandy Daniel, department secretary.
But many people who want to get on the lake in the early hours of the morning, or stay late, are unaware that the second boat launch on Hauser Lake now is open 24 hours.
That launch, on the south end of the lake, is more convenient for most people and has more parking. It used to have limited hours, too, but that changed with the changes at the north launch.
Until lake users accept the new rules, county officials will continue to be jumpy when Panattoni calls.
“The agreement is the agreement,” he said. “It stands as it is.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo