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Land Board OKs marina rules

BOISE – Despite plenty of controversy about provisions allowing marinas on Idaho lakes to be partially privatized, the state Land Board voted unanimously Thursday to send new marina rules to the state Legislature for approval.

If they choose, lawmakers could delete the sections in the proposed new rules that allow up to half of the slips in a commercial marina to be “sold” through condominium-type arrangements, state officials said.

That’s the most controversial part of the extensive new rules being proposed to govern Idaho docks and marinas. A long series of public meetings and a well-attended public hearing last month in Coeur d’Alene brought agreement on many of the other changes in the rules, from higher fees that would make the state lease program self-supporting to new definitions that eliminate contradictions in the state’s existing regulations. A few provisions of the rules were modified based on input from last month’s hearing.

George Bacon, director of the state Department of Lands, told the Land Board on Thursday that there’s still one “big bone of contention” in the rules: the clause allowing up to half of a commercial marina to be privatized rather than kept open for moorage rentals to the public.

“What we’re trying to do with that rule is encourage marina owners to stay in business,” Bacon said. With soaring lakefront land values in Idaho, he said, “We’re afraid they’ll close their marinas, there’ll be less public access, and the lakefronts will just be filled up with condos and subdivisions and community docks.”

Opponents of the privatization rule, he said, “think the opposite will happen – that there will be less availability of public facilities.”

Bacon said most of Idaho’s lakefront land is privately owned, and lakeshore owners have the right to “wharf out” by building private or community docks, if they get state permits. They can also operate commercial marinas by permit, but with the pricey real estate involved, those may become increasingly unattractive financially, he said.

“I think the real problem for Idaho is there’s not enough publicly owned lakefront, and that’s really where the focus needs to be,” Bacon said.

Eric Wilson, program manager for navigable waters and minerals for the Lands Department, said, “The real issue we’re trying to address is maintaining some level of public access into the future. The difference is how do we get there.”

Prime lakefront land in Idaho is now worth about $20,000 per foot of lake frontage, Wilson said.

Gov. Butch Otter pondered whether the state should move forward with the portion of the rules on which there’s agreement and continue working on the rest. “It appears to me we’re free to go forward with those things where there’s no disagreement,” he said. “Let’s work a little harder on where we have the disagreements.”

He also questioned whether the state Parks Department’s expertise on docks and marinas should be tapped as part of the process.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden asked if further negotiations would help, or if the remaining issue is simply a philosophical difference. Lands Department staffers said it’s philosophical. “We see the same words, and we anticipate 180-degree different outcomes,” Bacon said.

Wasden then moved to forward the full set of rules to the 2008 Legislature, and the Land Board passed the motion unanimously.

Wilson noted that the hearings on the rules turned up lots of good ideas about how to encourage public access through tax incentives and other measures, but none of those were items that could be addressed in the department’s rule-making process.

The Legislature convenes in January.

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