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Sanders ruling a watershed

"What's going to happen next summer? I don't know. We may be back to square one," said Sanders Beach homeowner Dick Barclay on Monday. Friday's Idaho Supreme Court ruling bars the public from the beach that had been used by the public for generations. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Sanders Beach has become the poster child for Kootenai County’s growth struggle.

People on both sides of the invisible line so feverishly fought over, resulting in Friday’s Idaho Supreme Court decision barring public access to the beach, agree that the popular shoreline and its 100-year history highlight how North Idaho is changing as more people move in.

It’s a battle between private property rights and community good. The rich versus the middle class. The old versus the new.

“It was just a local neighborhood beach,” said Dick Barclay, who lives in the Sanders Beach home his grandfather built in 1925. “We knew everyone down here and everyone behaved themselves and it was just a friendly atmosphere. The public is less civil now.”

Coeur d’Alene’s population has soared from about 14,000 to 37,000. This increase puts more pressure on public spaces.

Barclay said a gradual change came over Sanders Beach in the early 1990s. Instead of family picnics, Sanders Beach became a place of dirty diapers, hypodermic needles and used condoms, an attorney for the homeowners told the state Supreme Court in August.

Yet not everyone agrees. Some say the beach is actually used less and is cleaned more in an effort to keep the peace.

Regardless, the tension built until summertime confrontations exploded among property owners and area residents seeking relief from the summer heat.

Perhaps the most significant change that paralleled the growth was new ownership of the stately downtown homes at the beach with multimillion-dollar views. Today, only two of the owners are natives, including Barclay. The other is Mayor Sandi Bloem’s brother, Greg Crimp, who advocates for public use.

The new title holders are unfamiliar with Sanders Beach’s historically open use. Barclay said the true brouhahas began when the new owners tried to enforce their private property rights.

Attorney Scott Reed, who represents the Sanders Beach Preservation Association that argues for public access, referred to East Lakeshore Drive as “millionaire’s row,” with owners who want an exclusive claim to what they purchased.

“The times have changed,” Reed said. “It was a small town. You would never think of kicking anyone off in those days.”

Although the court ruling is unanimously against Reed, he hopes that a compromise will be reached, letting Sanders Beach return to its idyllic state – a place where both homeowners and beachgoers can share the sand.

Yet he acknowledges Coeur d’Alene’s lawsuit against the homeowners likely put any potential for negotiations on hold for years until the rancor fades.

City Attorney Mike Gridley said Coeur d’Alene had no choice but to file the lawsuit asking a court to finally determine the high water mark so police knew where private land ends and public begins.

The homeowners wanted relief. The public wanted continued access.

“We are charged with solving community disputes,” Gridley said. “Our only option was finding that line.”

He is satisfied with the court’s ruling, which declares 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. It essentially eliminates all public access to the beach in front of Barclay’s home and the other properties between 12th and 15th streets.

The homeowners believe the city was trying to take the beach in a power grab.

“Compromise is out the window,” Barclay said.

He doesn’t know if next summer will bring more tension.

“It’s been used for generations as if it were public; now it will take a generation to realize it’s private,” he said.

Turf battles are occurring all across Kootenai County, especially in rural areas where residents don’t want large developments that endanger the area’s character.

Neighborhood groups across Kootenai County, from Harrison to Athol, are organizing to battle the new trend. Developers argue it’s their right to profit from their land and that growth is inevitable.

“We are going to see more and more of this as we get more people coming here,” said Bev Twillmann, who has no involvement in the Sanders Beach debate but is keeping close tabs on development in Kootenai County. She’s opposing several large, gated golf course developments on the east side of Lake Coeur d’Alene. She believes gentrification will break the spirit that once made North Idaho so special.

Yet Twillmann understands that there is never a clear answer.

“Nobody wins in this,” she said.


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