January 24, 2011 in Idaho

Parks chief rapped for CdA boat launch letters

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

State Parks Director Nancy Merrill, addressing the Senate Resources Committee on Monday, defends her agency’s decision to send 32,000 letters to registered North Idaho boaters about the possible closure of the Third Street boat launch in Coeur d’Alene. City officials were concerned about the move and complained to local legislators.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Idaho lawmakers called their state parks director on the carpet Monday over letters that were sent to 32,000 boaters about the possible closure of the Third Street boat launch in Coeur d’Alene.

State Parks Director Nancy Merrill told the Senate Resources Committee she was just doing her job as required by state law: Standing up for boater access on state waters.

But Coeur d’Alene city officials say the city always planned to replace the launch with another one just as good, if it removes the downtown launch as part of a big renovation of McEuen Field into a waterfront park - and that message got lost.

“I appreciate that they are looking out for boater access - we are doing the same thing,” said Coeur d’Alene Mayor Sandy Bloem.

Said city Parks Director Doug Eastwood, “It was very, very poor communication.”

Merrill said Monday that she has absolutely no problem with the McEuen Park project if the boat launch will be replaced elsewhere. In fact, she said, the city can apply for grants through her department to build the replacement launch.

“That’s good to know,” Eastwood said Monday. “We just aren’t that far along. … We have a lot of work to do yet.”

Merrill said, “Our only concern is boating access, for which we are responsible to our boaters who pay the registration for that.”

That, she said, is why the department, at the urging of one of its board members, sent out 32,000 letters to all the registered boaters in the region, including those in Washington and Montana, letting them know that the launch might be shut down and they could comment to the city on the plan. The letter, however, made no mention of a replacement launch.

The city of Coeur d’Alene has been involved in a long process of developing a new vision for McEuen Field, which stretches to the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene in the center of the city’s downtown, and includes ball fields, the boat launch and parking lots. In the plan, the launch and parking lots would be removed and replaced with a large public lakeshore amphitheater, a promenade, a winter ice rink, various new sports courts, a fishing pier, underground parking and more.

Bloem said the starting principles for the project, adopted by the City Council years ago, and “stated over and over and over,” are that if the project displaces any user group, it’ll get an equal or better replacement facility. “We have promised our taxpayers that we would,” she said.

Last week, the city floated a proposal to North Idaho College for a new boat launch between the NIC campus and the city sewage treatment plant, a large site that would provide more boater parking than the current site.

“That looks very promising,” Eastwood said. “So we’re working on it.”

City officials complained that the state department just didn’t talk with them about the project before sending out the letters, which cost $11,000 including postage. Merrill, however, cited a string of e-mail exchanges including one in which a department staffer sent Eastwood a copy of the letter before it went out.

Eastwood said the staffer told him the letter would go to “local registered boat owners, and I thought, hmm, that’s a good idea, because that’s a group of people that we don’t have a lot of contact with.”

But he said he never thought it would go to 32,000 people in three states. The city received about 300 e-mails, calls and letters in response from boaters concerned about access to the lake.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked the Senate Resources Committee to review the situation, and its chairman, Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said, “We just want to know what’s going on. … We want to get the real facts out. There’ve been some ugly accusations made.”

The committee merely thanked Merrill for her presentation, but Goedde said later he’s not satisfied.

“Maybe Parks and Rec should be spending money on putting in another boat ramp, rather than sending out $11,000 worth of letters,” he said. “For the state to take the position they did and expend the money they did without being more involved in direct formal communication with the city is wrong.”

Merrill said the the letters were paid for with grant money from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, and the department received dozens of calls, letters and e-mails thanking it for informing boaters about the project.

Eastwood said he doesn’t think the state parks department needs to do anything further, other than talk more with the city - and perhaps assign a single staff member to get up to speed on the McEuen Park project and coordinate with the city on it.

“I know IDPR is probably a little sore with me, as I am with them,” Eastwood said, “but our relationship has been so doggone good for so many years, I hope this isn’t an issue bigger than it needs to be.”

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