Most Priest Lake cabin sites sell to existing lessees, Idaho schools make nearly $27M

Auctioneers take competing bids in one of the few contested auctions Thursday for a state-owned cabin site at Idaho's Priest Lake (Betsy Russell)
Auctioneers take competing bids in one of the few contested auctions Thursday for a state-owned cabin site at Idaho's Priest Lake (Betsy Russell)

Nearly all of the 60 cabin owners whose Priest Lake cabin sites – the ground that sits under their cabins – were auctioned by the state of Idaho on Thursday were able to purchase the sites at the appraised value, with no competitive bidding.

There were tears of joy and high-fives from relieved cabin owners; there also was some continuing anger from those who resented the long process they’ve endured dealing with the state over their family cabin sites, and disputed the values the state set for the ground, which served as the minimum bidding price. That ranged from a low of $200,000 to a high of $665,000, for the land only.

The take for Idaho’s public school endowment on Thursday: $26.86 million.

Just two of the cabin sites drew competitive bidding; on one of those, the current lessee didn’t bid, and the competition was between two prospective new owners. The state made more than $123,000 above the appraised value as a result. The other one that saw multiple bids came when a competitor bid up the price but the current lessee outbid him; that one went $9,000 over the appraisal.

All but two of the other cabin sites sold to the current lessees; in one exception, the current lessees had arranged to have a successor do the bidding. The other site drew no bids and went unsold.

Billy Symmes accompanied his beaming mother out of the contract-signing room after finalizing the purchase of the ground under their family cabin, which they’ve had since 1994. “Getting to hold onto the cabin is great – the process, no comment,” he said.

Denny Christenson, moments after signing contracts to take ownership of the ground under his longtime family cabin, said, “It feels good. It’s going to be a while to sink in. Twenty-three years as a lessee and having a landlord – now we don’t have a landlord.” He added with a chuckle. “Now, we have a mortgage.”

Another lessee who successfully gained ownership of the ground under her family’s cabin said, “We’re just happy to have this over with – and no comment.” Said another, “It’s been a mess for a couple of years.”

Christenson, president of the Priest Lake State Lessees Association, said the process has been “confusing and frustrating” for cabin owners. Idaho long has rented the lakefront lots to people who build and own their own cabins on them, but has struggled to charge the constitutionally required market-rate rents; it’s sharply upped the rents in recent years, pricing out some longtime cabin owners. Now, the state’s moving toward getting out of the cabin-site renting business.

The process has moved in fits and starts, however. All of the cabin sites auctioned Thursday were included in earlier land exchanges, but the state Land Board abruptly canceled all exchanges last December.

“It totally changed course at the end of last year, so there was lots of concern that the state would not follow through with the auction,” Christenson said.

Christenson waited through much of the day before his cabin lot came up for auction in the 5 p.m. batch; the 60 sites were divided into four groups, with a group auctioned every two hours at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.

After each batch of auctions, cabin owners exchanged hugs and slaps on the back. “I know my gut’s been churning, and I’m not even in this round,” one said. “Taxes will be cheaper than the lease,” said another.

Steven Hubbs, 68, successfully bid the appraised value, $200,000, for the ground under the lake cabin he’s had for the past 15 years. “It seems fair,” he said. “I think a lot of the older people that have owned cabins on the lake for a long time, I think they’re at a disadvantage – I don’t think they’re being treated fairly. But for people who bought recently, I think it’s fair.”

Don Morris of Chewelah came to watch the auction out of curiosity; his Priest Lake cabin is on a deeded site that he owns, so he’s not affected, but he used to own one on a state lease. He was among a crowd of more than 250 at Thursday’s auction.

“I’ve been on the lake since I was 15 years old,” Morris said. He said he was “a little surprised” that there wasn’t more competitive bidding. “I kinda thought there might be more investors come in and try to snag some of these properties,” he said. The real-estate company, Corbett Bottles, handling the auction “certainly did a good job” advertising it, Morris said.

When he bought his first cabin on state leased land in 1972, it had a 99-year lease and the rent was $100 a year. That soon changed; the lease term dropped to 10 years, and the rent started going up. “I could just see that the price was going to get too much,” Morris said, so when he had a chance to buy a cabin on land he could own outright instead, he did it.

Asked if it was worth the drive to watch the auction Thursday, Morris said, “As soon as it’s done, I’m going to the lake.”

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