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Idaho mulls covenants on Priest Lake cabin sites

Members of Idaho's state Land Board, including Gov. Butch Otter, left, and acting state Controller Brandon Woolf, right, deliberate on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)
Members of Idaho's state Land Board, including Gov. Butch Otter, left, and acting state Controller Brandon Woolf, right, deliberate on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - As Idaho moves toward transferring hundreds of state-owned cabin sites on scenic Priest Lake to private owners through land exchanges or auctions, the state wants to protect the value of the land - and nearby state endowment land - through restrictive covenants.

Most Priest Lake cabin owners who now own their cabins, but not the land, are on board with the idea, but some are objecting.

“We don’t want them,” declared cabin owner Tom Wielgos in a letter to the Idaho State Land Board, decrying the “bureaucracy” that would come with restrictions enforced by a homeowner’s association. An anonymous emailer questioned whether the restrictions would violate “fundamental freedoms.”

Those restrictions would keep in place current regulations limiting the sites to single-family homes, rather than condos, resorts or commercial development; ban mobile homes; require earth tones and “unobtrusive” construction; and require erosion control and defensible space to cut wildfire risk. The association also would oversee road maintenance.

“We recognize that a very minor percentage of Priest Lake lessees may not understand nor appreciate the importance of putting restrictions on the cottage sites,” said Denny Christenson, president of the Priest Lake State Lessees Association, who told the Land Board on Tuesday that his group represents 312 of the 354 lessees. “The failure to do so could be catastrophic to the long-term beauty and character of one of Idaho’s true treasures.”

Restrictive covenants aren’t being proposed for similar cabin sites on Payette Lake to the south, but that’s because those cabin sites are within the McCall city area of impact, subjecting them to restrictive zoning regulations. That’s not true of the Priest Lake sites, where Bonner County’s current zoning regulations could permit a variety of changes if the land became privately owned.

Several Lands Department officials met with state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, in April, and in a follow-up letter, department Deputy Director Kathy Opp wrote that restrictive covenants would be imposed in the 15 neighborhoods of Priest Lake cabins only if 100 percent of residents in each neighborhood want them.

However, Opp told the board on Tuesday that the question is a policy decision that the board, consisting of the state’s top elected officials, should decide; that’s what lawyers have advised the department.

“As a matter of law, there is no requirement to include Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions,” Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong told the board. “But as a matter of policy, it is the policy choice of this board.”

Christenson said 100 percent agreement among cabin owners would be “an impossible threshold to attain, for all but the very smallest of neighborhoods. … We are opposed to it. It alone would prevent our objective to maintain the existing character and land values of the lake.”

Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the Land Board, said, “There’s obviously some resistance to this. And before I impose any late-day imposition on lessees or anybody that owns property, I’d like to be fairly certain that I had the authority to do that.”

He requested a formal legal opinion from Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who said he can deliver one within a week. The Land Board then will hold a special meeting to decide on the covenants and restrictions; owners in each neighborhood could make future changes to the restrictions by a two-thirds vote.

Christenson, who like many of the cabin owners is from Spokane, said, “We’re happy that the state’s been working with us. It’s unfortunate the state had to go to this much effort to deal with this situation, but it’s needed to address the concerns of all the lessees.”

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