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Camp Easton case in hands of Idaho Supreme Court

The Boy Scouts of America has no plans to sell or swap Camp Easton on Lake Coeur d’Alene. In fact, the organization’s Inland Northwest Council wants to invest in upgrades there, and topping the list is a pedestrian tunnel under state Highway 97.

“We’re going to further develop what we have right where we’re at. And that’s our complete plan for the future,” Boy Scouts Council Executive Tim McCandless said.

But a legal challenge to the council’s authority to one day sell or trade the property at the heart of the camp is in its third year. Now it’s in the hands of the Idaho Supreme Court, which heard arguments Tuesday centering on the 85-year-old donation of land that established the popular camp on Gotham Bay.

A District Court earlier ruled in favor of the Inland Northwest Council, which in 2011 and 2012 considered moving the camp across the lake. Stacey Cowles, publisher of The Spokesman-Review, is vice president for endowment of the Inland Northwest Council executive committee.

An Arizona-based developer had offered to build a modern replacement camp at Sunup Bay and set up an endowment to operate the new camp in exchange for the Gotham Bay property.

That deal fell through, but opponents of moving Camp Easton pressed ahead with a lawsuit arguing that the Scouts cannot sell or trade the land because it was donated for the purpose of always being a Boy Scouts camp. In 1929, Frederick W. Fitze gave the original 132 acres to the Idaho Panhandle Council of Boy Scouts.

“I think Mr. Fitze was really clear about what he wanted this land to be used for and why,” said attorney Kathleen Kolts, representing Camp Easton Forever, which filed the suit.

While the deed for the land contains no restrictions on selling the property, Kolts argued that Fitze intended it to be used in perpetuity for the camp, as summarized in the minutes of a meeting between him and local Boy Scouts officials in May 1929. Disregarding evidence of the intent of the donation would have a chilling effect on charitable giving, Kolts argued.

“Charitable gifts are supposed to be honored as the donor intended,” she told the five justices assembled in a Coeur d’Alene courtroom.

The August 1929 deed states that Fitze and his wife donated the property to the Panhandle Council “for the use of the Boy Scouts of America.” The document does not specify that it be used as a camp, nor does it establish a charitable trust for the property. It simply states the land is for the Scouts to use, and that could include one day selling it and using the proceeds to establish a new camp, the council’s attorney argued.

It’s “crystal clear” that the deed’s beneficiary is the council that oversees Scout troops in the region, attorney Michael Ramsden said. He asked the justices if the original donation of land should now be considered a sacred cow.

Kolts countered, “It’s not a sacred cow; it’s a sacred gift.”

In his May 2012 decision for the defendants, 1st District Judge John Luster found that the minutes of the 1929 meeting cannot be applied in the case. The language of the deed is unambiguous, Luster said.

The judge also had ruled that Camp Easton Forever lacked standing to pursue its claims, in part because the group did not establish it would suffer actual damages from sale of the camp.

Camp Easton, which has grown to three times the size of the 1929 donation, is one of the busiest Scout camps in the Northwest. This summer, more than 1,500 Scouts are registered to attend it.

Even though the council has no plans to relocate the camp, McCandless said, the organization cannot foresee what conditions may compel such a move years from now.

“What will be around us 200 years from now?” he said after Tuesday’s arguments. “When Mr. Fitze gave the gift, there was not a state highway through the middle of this property, as there is today, with busy traffic all summer long when we’re in session. When Mr. Fitze gave the property, the Coeur d’Alene River was not an EPA Superfund site with toxic metals that have to be removed to the tune of billions of dollars.”

“The Boy Scouts want to know what are our rights with our property,” McCandless added.

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