WORLEY, Idaho – The Coeur d’Alene Tribe thought it won control of the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene with a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The rebellion of several dozen waterfront property owners, however, demonstrates that the high court ruling was just one battle the tribe must win before it really controls tribal waters and wins over Benewah County residents.
The tribe announced plans last week to enforce its requirement that waterfront owners get an annual permit for docks or other encroachments into the lake or the St. Joe River.
The tribe launched its encroachment program in 1998 but didn’t start pushing it in earnest until after the 2001 ruling.
But what the tribe considers a privilege, some property owners consider a right. And that impasse is listing toward litigation.
“The tribe has been trying to reach out to property owners for eight years,” said Robert Matt, the tribe’s administrative director and former director of the lake management department.
While most dock owners now have acquired the permits, 91 out of 544 property owners have not. Most of the holdouts are along the St. Joe River near St. Maries, tribal officials said.
“We’re not going to deal with these people anymore,” Matt said. “We’re going to move ahead.”
If dock owners still refuse to obtain the permit or pay the fees, the tribe plans to take them to tribal court to force the issue. The outcome could result in court-ordered fines or the removal of the docks, tribal officials said.
Tribal Chairman Chief Allen said it’s an issue of fairness because most of the waterfront property owners have paid the fees, and the fees go toward keeping the lake clean and safe.
“It’s all our responsibility to clean up the lake,” he said.
The only person to appeal a compliance order from the tribe has been Jack Buell, a Benewah County commissioner who has chosen not to pay his dock fees. Buell has an attorney and is expected to have his appeal hearing soon, tribal officials said. Buell did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“We’re not trying to rule with an iron fist,” said Francis SiJohn, the tribe’s vice chairman. “The process is built to protect the health and welfare of everybody.”
Nonetheless, some waterfront property owners consider the tribe’s $100-per-year dock fees an assault on their liberties as U.S. citizens.
“We have a federally protected right to wharfage,” said Toni Hardy, who lives on her mother’s land along the southeast shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The Supreme Court ruled that the waters are owned by the federal government and held in trust for the use of the tribe, and Hardy emphasizes the fact that the federal government is the actual owner, “just like the U.S. forest.”
Hardy and her husband, Rog, are outspoken critics of the tribe. They scoff when it’s suggested that property owners could wind up in tribal court and say the tribe has no authority over nontribal members.
Tribal attorney Eric Van Orden said it’s clear the U.S. Supreme Court gave the tribe the right to impose reasonable regulations to protect the lake. He also anticipates that some property owners will reject the tribe’s enforcement authority, which could result in a lengthy legal battle.
“We’re prepared to fight, and we’re prepared to win,” Matt said. “But we’d rather spend $1 million protecting water quality than fighting legal issues over jurisdiction.”
Meanwhile, the state of Idaho, which lost the tribe’s lawsuit over control of the southern third of the lake, isn’t taking sides. Benewah County residents who contacted the state attorney general’s office learned that the state considers the dispute one between private property owners and the tribe.
“This really is not an issue involving the state of Idaho,” said Bob Cooper, the attorney general’s spokesman.
County commissioners from Benewah, Shoshone and Kootenai counties held a meeting with David Hensley, counsel to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, late last month where they complained about the encroachment program.
This week, Hensley met with a delegation from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Although Hensley won’t publicly endorse the tribe’s right to enforce permits on the lake, he said the state doesn’t want to spend its efforts debating that issue.
“We’re committed to working with anyone who wants to come to the table to seek solutions that are mutually beneficial,” he said Friday.
The tribe says it needs to charge fees for the docks to help pay for the activities of the encroachment program, which is intended to protect water quality and improve the navigation safety and aesthetic values on the lake.
The fees bring in revenue of about $60,000 a year, and the tribe contributes another $200,000 to the program each year, according to the tribe. One reason the tribe charges an annual fee – and the state doesn’t – for docks and noncommercial encroachments is that the tribe doesn’t have tax revenues to help pay for its lake management work, Matt said.
“This isn’t a money-making deal here,” he said.