February 26, 2005 in Idaho

Hearing begins with beach stroll

By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photo

Attorneys and Judge James Judd, fourth from left, walk down Sanders Beach and look at the disputed water line area Friday afternoon.
(Full-size photo)

The only decision a 1st District Court judge made Friday about Sanders Beach was that it was time for a walk along the sandy shoreline in the rare 50-degree February sunshine.

Retired Judge James Judd, who was selected by the state Supreme Court to hear the lawsuit about who owns the popular beach, gave the seven attorneys involved 15 minutes to meet him at the beach stretching between 12th and 15th streets.

The men, dressed in suits and tasseled shiny shoes, strolled through the sand to get a firsthand understanding of the issues, specifically to see the imaginary line in the sand that’s the lake elevation of 2,128 feet.

Some people, including the state Land Board, presume that’s the high-water mark. Other folks, such as Sanders Beach Preservation Association members, say the high-water mark is 10 feet higher.

No court has ever made an exact determination.

That’s why Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai County are asking a court to once and for all determine the legal high-water mark on Sanders Beach. The high-water mark shows where private land ends and where publicly-owned waters begin, which would determine whether the beach is public or private.

The lawsuit names the Sanders Beach homeowners between 12th and 15th streets, the preservation association that advocates for public use and the Idaho Department of Lands – parties that have stakes in the location of the high-water mark.

Judd made no decision on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit or to keep the state Land Board from giving up the lakeshore above 2,128 feet to the private property owners.

“I’ll look at those things and give you an answer as quickly as I can,” Judd said before adjourning a hearing for the impromptu field trip.

Attorneys for the majority of the beach property owners argued Friday that the lawsuit should be thrown out because the Sanders Beach Preservation Association and its members don’t own any of the land in question.

Attorney John Magnuson said the state Land Board, which is composed of five state elected officials, including the governor, should decide the location of the high-water mark. If the preservation association disagrees with the Land Board ruling, it then would have the right to appeal to a court.

Preservation association attorney Scott Reed argued the group represents the members of the public who believe Sanders Beach is open for all to use – the same people, he says, who are often harassed by property owners.

He added that the Land Board hasn’t declared the high-water mark on Sanders Beach and that is why there is such a conflict between property owners and beach users.

If the court made an official determination, then the city would have the ability to enforce trespass laws and deal with other problems, such as drinking on the beach and disruptive behavior.

Judd also took up a motion by the preservation association asking the court to stop the Land Board from disclaiming the title to the beach above 2,128 feet.

The state, in an attorney general’s recommendation, contends that individual homeowners own the beach above where Lake Coeur d’Alene laps at the sand during the summer, which is 2,128 feet. If so, that means the public has no right to use the popular beach as locals have done for a century.

Reed argued the state is breaching the public’s trust by giving up land he considers public. Reed contends that the high-water mark is at 2,138 feet.

Deputy Idaho Attorney General Nicholas Krema said that the land board isn’t picking 2,128 feet out of the air and that that’s where the state presumes the high-water mark is located on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

He showed a picture depicting the lake level at both 2,128 feet and 2,138 feet. He said if the high-water mark were where the preservation association contends, then North Idaho College would be under water.

Judd said even if the court stopped the Land Board from disclaiming the title, the state could still argue that it believes the high-water mark is at 2,128 feet.

Judd is scheduled on March 24 and 25 to hear another motion to allow public use of the beach below the existing seawalls until a ruling is made.

The motion was made by Sanders Beach property owners Greg and Shana Crimp, who believe the beach is public. Greg Crimp is Mayor Sandi Bloem’s brother.

Judd said that the court needs to move fairly fast to “prevent anarchy” because summer is coming. That’s the time of year that flames beach confrontations. City and county officials, along with the preservation association, fear that the controversy could easily escalate into violence.

Last summer’s brawls were part of the reason the city filed the lawsuit.

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