Family sues to stop Priest Lake auction
Relatives ashes spread across lakefront bring legal twist
The Starlin family stands to lose a lot more than the lake cabin their great-grandfather hand-built on leased state land back in 1933 as Idaho auctions off the parcel next month. They could be leaving behind generations of family members whose ashes have been put to rest there, too.
Marissa Olsson remembers the ceremony when 30 extended family members shared memories of her grandmother and then placed a handful of her ashes in a spot that held special memories of her. She took ashes to the beach where she made mud pies as a child and her grandmother would pretend to eat them. The two dubbed the spot the “Priest Lake Café.”
Now, the family’s modest cabin is one of four set for auction next month.
The family has sued the state of Idaho with another cabin owner in hopes of stopping the auctions.
If someone else submits the highest bid to take over the state lease on the land, the losing cabin owner will be paid the appraised value of the improvements – the buildings, docks and anything else besides the land.
The lawsuit argues the state is allowing other cabin owners at Priest Lake a shot at a new appraisal for their cabin sites after the latest ones were challenged as inaccurate. Only those facing so-called conflict auctions were not allowed to object nor were they allowed to join land exchanges to try and secure ownership of the land before the auction.
Perhaps the most eye-catching item in the lawsuit, filed late last week in Bonner County, is the human remains. The cabin site is the final resting place not only for Olsson’s grandmother, but also for her great uncle, her step-grandfather, and two cousins, including a little girl who was stillborn in 1939. Permanent memorials to all five are located on the site.
“The whole family is very upset about it,” said Olsson, now an attorney in Seattle. Her aunt, Jan Nunamaker, holds the lease now.
Nunamaker is the granddaughter of John Morton Starlin, a Spokane resident who built the cabin in 1933 with salvaged materials. “It was during the Depression, they didn’t have much money,” Olsson explained. “He worked in a fruit-packing plant and dismantled pallets, and spent the winter hammering nails straight. … It was truly a labor of love.”
Glass for the cabin’s windows came from old Olympia beer signs; Olsson’s grandmother recalled helping her dad scrape paint off the glass with razor blades during winters, preparing the windows for the cabin. Starlin began camping on the site in 1910; he spent 10 years stockpiling the salvaged materials for the cabin, which he transported 10 miles by rowboat to the lakefront site.
The extended family also owns the cabin next door, on which there’s a small ’60s-era A-frame cabin; there are no other neighbors nearby. No conflict bid was submitted on the adjoining property.
“It just holds such a special place for all the family members,” Olsson said. “It’s where weddings have been held. … Whenever anything really special is going to happen, there’s where it is for the family.”
State Lands Department Deputy Director Kathy Opp said Monday that she knew nothing about the human remains and hadn’t yet seen the lawsuit.
Spokane attorney J. Scott Miller, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Nunamaker and another Priest Lake cabin owner, Marc Groskreutz, said it’s “an interesting question” whether the presence of human remains carries any legal weight in the dispute. “I haven’t found any case law that definitively answers that question,” he said. “This is one of the appraisals that the state has acknowledged was not done properly. I can tell you that I would expect graves to be mentioned in an appraisal.”
In May, Idaho’s state Land Board, which consists of the state’s top elected officials, voted unanimously to allow any of the 354 cabin owners on leased lots at Priest Lake to request new appraisals, after complaints about inaccuracies and other problems in appraisals that showed values skyrocketing 80 percent. About 300 reappraisals now are underway.
The conflict bid on the Nunamaker cabin site came from a Colorado attorney, who declined to comment Monday.
Both Nunamaker and Groskreutz had signed up for land exchanges, seeking to get full ownership of their cabin sites, and paid fees to real estate companies organizing exchanges designed to close before the end of 2013. The lawsuit notes that Idaho Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz told lessees at a Spokane Valley meeting this past summer that they could avoid a conflict auction by joining an exchange.
Miller, the Spokane attorney, said, “They did an about-face – they simply changed their mind.”
Idaho has been encouraging exchanges, auctions and other moves as it seeks to get out of the business of renting lake cabin sites to people who build their family cabins on them, after years of disputes and lawsuits over what constitutes fair rent.