Coeur d’Alene’s Sanders Beach is no more, at least between 12th and 15th streets.
The Idaho Supreme Court unanimously ruled Friday that the invisible line where private property ends and public land begins is not higher than the summer level of the lake, or 2,128 feet elevation.
That essentially eliminates all public access to the popular beach that has been used by swimmers and sunbathers for a century. The public still has access to city-owned portions that flank the beach, with entry off 11th Street and in front of the Jewett House.
But homeowners between 12th and 15th streets now have exclusive use of the sandy shoreline and the legal ability to kick off anyone above the summer waterline. Coeur d’Alene police also can enforce trespass laws, which is why the city and Kootenai County filed a lawsuit in 2004 asking a judge to determine the legal high-water mark at Sanders Beach. No court had ever made the exact determination, causing annual disputes between homeowners and people using the beach.
Friday’s ruling doesn’t set the ordinary high-water mark, yet it does declare that there is no factual evidence to prove that the invisible line is any higher than 2,128 feet.
“We got what we wanted – a clear determination,” said Mike Haman, who represents the city. “We didn’t care where (the line) was at.”
Some Coeur d’Alene residents who have used the beach for years are grieving the loss.
“The state of Idaho has lost a treasure,” said Van Bennett, who swims nearly daily in the lake.
“Just this summer I looked (down the beach), and there were maybe 20 families with kids between maybe 3 years old and 10 years old. I thought, ‘Oh man, if the court could just see this.’ “
Normally it takes the state high court months to render a decision, but in this case the 5-0 ruling came less than a month after justices were in Coeur d’Alene for hearings. It’s the quickest decision that any of the attorneys involved can recall.
Justice Daniel Eismann wrote the 17-page opinion that states retired 1st District Court Judge James Judd erred when he established the high-water mark at 2,130 feet elevation in September 2005. Judd had determined that the elevation only applied to Sanders Beach, not the entire lake – a notion that waterfront owners feared would affect every property owner along Lake Coeur d’Alene and likely private property rights on all navigable Idaho lakes and rivers. Calling it a horror story, attorneys for waterfront owners said that each owner would have to file lawsuits to protect his or her beach.
Eismann rejected Judd’s ruling and calmed waterfront owners’ fears by declaring that the high-water mark is the same at all places around the lake because water seeks its level, just as in a bathtub, and the lake can’t have differing elevations.
“It really is over,” said John Magnuson, who represents the majority of the Sanders Beach homeowners. He said there is no way to appeal the case because all the city wanted was a determination of the water mark so it could enforce trespass laws.
He said the only argument left is if a property owner wanted to prove that the high-water mark is actually lower than the summertime elevation. Magnuson’s clients never argued for a specific elevation, just that the high-water mark isn’t higher than 2,128 feet.
Attorneys Scott Reed, who represents the Sanders Beach Preservation Association that advocates for public access, and Ray Givens, who represents the one homeowner who also wants the beach public, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Magnuson is considering a lawsuit against the city for violating the Sanders Beach homeowners’ civil rights by taking away the use of their private property for more than a year and making it public domain. During the summer of 2005, Judd declared anything below the Sanders Beach seawalls open to the public until a high-water ruling was made. This summer beachgoers lost a few feet of sand after Judd issued his 2,130 foot ruling.
Just this week, the city got an encroachment permit from the Idaho Department of Lands to put stakes every 150 feet to designate the 2,130-foot mark. Since that ruling is now void, Haman said the city is considering whether to ask the state to amend the permit and allow the stakes at the 2,128 foot elevation so the line is clear in the winter months when the lake level recedes.
Haman also noted that the city’s shoreline ordinance remains in effect, meaning residents can’t put any structures, such as fences or seawalls, within 40 feet of the high-water mark.
A separate high court case regarding the shoreline rules has been on hold, waiting for a decision in the high-water mark case.