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Judge: Priest Lake cabin owners have no right to continue state leases

A North Idaho judge has ruled against a family that challenged the auction of its state-owned leased cabin site at Priest Lake, saying cabin owners who rent their ground from the state have no right to continue their leases or to appeal their appraisals prior to a conflict auction.

The opinion issued by 1st District Judge Barbara Buchanan doesn’t mention the oddest part of the case – that the remains of five of the family’s ancestors, dating back nearly a century, are interred on the cabin site, and permanent memorials to the five are located there.

Spokane attorney J. Scott Miller said that turned out to be more of emotional issue than a legal issue in the case. “I’m surprised it wasn’t an issue for the individual who bid against the family,” he said. “But … really there’s no legal grounds that I’m aware of.”

Buchanan found that cabin owners have no right to continue their leases once they expire. “The plain terms of the 2012-2013 lease provided that any renewal of the lease was entirely at the discretion of the Land Board,” she wrote.

Plus, she found, “Even if the lease could be construed to provide a right of continuation past the expiration of the lease, such right is unenforceable as a matter of law given the Idaho Supreme Court’s recent determination that the Idaho Constitution prohibits the Board from offering a lease renewal to a cottage site lessee without first making the lease available for public auction.”

Idaho protected cabin owners, who own the cabins they build on their rented state land, from competing bidders at auctions for decades, until the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that protective law unconstitutional. The land is owned by the state’s endowment, whose earnings benefit Idaho’s public schools.

Since then, the state has been moving to get out of the cabin-site renting business, but called off several large-scale land exchanges designed to trade the cabin sites for higher-yielding commercial property after new legal questions were raised.

Jan Nunemaker, who holds the cabin site lease in question, was one of two Priest Lake cabin owners who were outbid for their leases at a conflict auction Dec. 5. Nunamaker bid $1,000 to keep her family’s longstanding lease, but was outbid by Denver attorney and businessman Peter Mounsey, who bid $2,000.

Miller said by participating in the auction, the family preserved its legal rights; he said they now plan to file an administrative appeal of the auction. “This is something that’s moving forward - it isn’t over,” he said.

At the conclusion of the auction, the successful bidder, Mounsey, was required to pay Nunemaker the appraised value of the improvements, which came to $38,500. He also had to pay the first year’s rent for the ground, $22,880, to the state in advance.

Nunamaker’s grandfather, John Morton Starlin, hand-built the cabin out of salvaged materials in 1933 that he brought in 10 miles by rowboat; the cabin site has no road access. Starlin’s descendants have been gathering at the modest cabin, and another small A-frame one they own next door, also on leased state land, for decades.

In addition to the Nunemaker cabin site, another conflict bidder, James Hollingsworth, outbid relative Graham Sharman in a bidding war over a cabin site in the Pinto Point subdivision. Hollingsworth’s winning premium bid was $30,000 to secure the lease. He was required to pay Sharman the $132,000 appraised value of the cabin; and to prepay a year’s rent for the ground underneath it is to the state, at $21,720.

A third conflict auction held Dec. 3 for a Payette Lake lot also saw the current lessee outbid. Brady Peterson of Eagle won that auction with a premium bid of $6,000, after current lessee and Oregon resident Michele Cahill stopped at $5,000. In that case, the improvements, a decrepit trailer, were found to have zero value, so Peterson won’t have to pay Cahill. He paid the first year’s rent of $920 to the state in advance; the lot, in the Agate subdivision, isn’t on the lakefront like the Priest Lake sites.


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