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Idaho attorney general challenges cabin leases

Thu., March 25, 2010

Wasden says new rates for lake sites too low

BOISE – Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has filed a legal challenge over lease increases for state-owned cabin sites, including those on Priest Lake, arguing that the new lease rates aren’t high enough.

Wasden’s complaint with the Idaho Supreme Court contends the new rental rates won’t bring appropriate returns to the beneficiaries of the state’s school endowment.

“The approved plan is flawed because the rent is too low,” said Wasden, who was in the minority in the Land Board’s 3-2 approval of the plan.

The cabin sites include 355 at Priest Lake, on which private owners have built and owned their cabins, in some cases, for generations. The land is owned by the state endowment, and rental income benefits public schools.

Wasden’s legal complaint seeks a writ of prohibition against the Idaho Land Board and the state lands director to prevent them from renewing cabin site leases when they expire on Dec. 31, until the Land Board approves higher rents.

The board consists of Gov. Butch Otter, Wasden, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, State Controller Donna Jones and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, the top five elected state officials. Wasden and Jones voted against the new lease terms, which were backed by Otter, Ysursa and Luna.

“These leases were written to favor the current renters at the expense of public schools and other endowment beneficiaries,” Wasden said in a statement. He said the new leases, if allowed to take effect, would deprive beneficiaries of $6 million to $10 million each year.

The state Land Board is required by the Idaho Constitution to manage state endowment lands for the maximum long-term return to the endowment’s beneficiaries, mainly public schools. State law also requires the board to charge “market rent throughout the duration of the lease” for state-owned cabin sites.

Ysursa, who chaired the Land Board subcommittee that developed the rent proposal, said he was disappointed at the legal challenge, which he said was unprecedented. “The Land Board is where this ought to be discussed and vetted, not in the Supreme Court,” he said.

Ysursa defended the Land Board’s decision, which calls for rent increases of 54 percent over the next five years. The only reason the rents aren’t at full market value now, he said, is because the entire Land Board has repeatedly voted for one-year freezes in rents, amid complaints about fast-rising valuations. “To then turn around and hit them with an astronomical increase in one year, I just did not think that was fair,” Ysursa said.

Attorneys for cabin owners at both Priest and Payette lakes objected to the new lease terms, which include additional surcharges when the cabin sites change hands, and suggested they may sue to block them.

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