December 17, 2013 in Idaho

Judge rules against Priest Lake cabin owners

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A North Idaho judge ruled against a family who challenged the auction of their state-owned leased cabin site at Priest Lake.

Cabin owners who rent their ground from the state have no right to continue their leases, 1st District Judge Barbara Buchanan wrote in her decision. She didn’t mention the oddest part of the case – that the ashes of five of the family’s ancestors, dating back nearly a century, were spread about the cabin site and that permanent memorials to the five are located there.

Spokane attorney J. Scott Miller, who represents the family, said the interment turned out to be more of an 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. Nunemaker bid $1,000 to keep her family’s long-standing 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.

Nunemaker’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.

Buchanan, in her ruling, also found that cabin owners have no right to appeal their appraisals prior to a conflict auction.

State lands officials had seen the ruling but had no comment Monday.


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