PRIEST LAKE, Idaho — With $50, a crosscut saw and gallons of sweat, M.N. Garlinghouse was able to build a piece of paradise on the shores of this grand, unspoiled lake.
The cabin didn’t have electricity or running water back in 1947. The gravel road to the lake popped countless tires and left passengers covered in dust. And Garlinghouse didn’t even own the land – the U.S. Forest Service was his landlord. But the little cabin was the perfect place to escape from Spokane’s summer heat.
The cabin is one of 121 built on national forest land along Priest Lake’s west shore. Like Garlinghouse, most of the other original cabin owners were working-class residents of the Spokane area. Although they didn’t own the land, the special-use permit from the Forest Service let them afford a seasonal cabin by a lake.
The permit sites have since become some of the hottest properties in the Northwest. In the rare event that one comes on the market, it’s now fetching $300,000 or more. And the new owners are not as likely to be Spokane teachers willing to endure a rustic lakeside shack.
“People are coming in there with lots and lots and lots of money and building huge, big cabins. In a lot of cases, they’re taking down the original cabin and putting in two-story jobs with big decks,” Garlinghouse said. “It’s nice for them but it does kind of ruin the atmosphere up there.”
The Forest Service is now scrambling to revise its cabin guidelines to preserve the rustic charm of the sites. Changes have been discussed for years, but some recent sales – including one cabin that reportedly sold for $600,000 – prompted the agency to enact a moratorium last month on building cabins bigger than 1,400 square feet plus a loft. The guidelines are being revised in cooperation with an organization representing the permit holders.
“We don’t want it to look like a subdivision, and that’s not what a lot of the members want to see,” said Dave O’Brien, spokesman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
The revised guidelines are expected to be finalized by the end of the year and will apply to all the Priest Lake cabins on Forest Service land, as well as the dozen special use permit cabins on Lake Pend Oreille. The cabins are owned outright by the permit holders, but the land on which they are built is open for use by any citizen. The cabin owners pay property taxes to the county and an annual permit fee to the Forest Service equal to 5 percent of the land value. The fees ranged from $643 to $6,790 this year.
The state of Idaho has 354 cabin leases on the east side of the lake. Unlike the federal permit sites, the state sites have no restrictions on the size of the cabin and the cabin owners control access to the property, said Ron King, with the Idaho Department of Lands. The state recently tightened the rules governing utility buildings, but no other big changes are in store, he said.
The Forest Service has long prohibited the cabin owners from planting manicured lawns, painting the structures in bold colors or chopping down trees that block the view of the lake. The biggest change with the new guidelines will be the size cap, said Debbie Butler, a Forest Service employee who manages the special use permits.
The previous size limit was vague, she said, but had been interpreted to allow 1,200 square feet on both the first and second floor. Most of the older cabins are 1,400 square feet or less. But the skyrocketing sales prices have fueled the construction of larger, grander structures, including a two-story timber-frame home with sweeping balconies and a footbridge leading to a two-car garage.
“The intent is for these cabins to blend in and more or less be rustic cabins in the woods,” Butler said.
Cabin owners will help draft the new guidelines, but the changes do not require a vote, Butler said. The cabins sit on land owned by the entire nation.
“It’s a privilege to have a recreation residence on national forest. The Forest Service is the landlord here,” she said.
Only three of the permits have transferred ownership this year – a sharp drop from previous years, Butler said.
The proposed restrictions are not likely to dampen demand for the special permit sites, said local real estate agency Lyman Hatch. If anything, the existing restrictions have protected the cabins’ value by preserving the natural settings. The cabin sites stand in sharp contrast to the golf course-like settings on many portions of Hayden, Pend Oreille and Coeur d’Alene lakes.
“It’s one of the cleanest, most beautiful lakes in the whole world,” Hatch said. “There’s a very small amount of shoreline that’s useable. It’s very infrequent that anything comes for sale on the lake.”
No federal permits are currently on the market, said Lisa Thaler, an agent with the Property Shoppe at Priest Lake.
“We have a long list of potential buyers,” Thaler said, adding that some are willing to pay “any amount” for a cabin along the sandy stretches of Luby Bay.
The proposed rule changes have polarized some of the permit holders. Some say the restrictions are tough enough. Many, including Mary Luby, support size caps. Her husband’s great uncle built the first cabin in the area in 1911.
“We’d like to see it stay lakey, not like a town,” Luby said.
Others say the moratorium is unfair. The Forest Service allowed some of the permit holders to build 2,400-square-feet cabins before the moratorium was imposed. Bill J. Ulrich, of Spokane, said the decision was arbitrary and did not include enough input from permit holders. He said size is less important than building style when it comes to creating cabins that blend in with the forest.
“But that’s the problem,” Ulrich said. “You can’t put the look and feel of the forest on paper.”
Ulrich’s mother, Roberta, bought a cottage on Luby Bay in 1982. On a recent afternoon she sat on the deck, looking out at the lake. Mint green moss hung from nearby cedar, spruce and larch branches. Much of the view is blocked by the trees. Ulrich doesn’t have the right to cut down the trees. She doesn’t mind.
“It still looks as if there’s a forest here. What they’ve done over on the east side is a travesty,” Ulrich said, referring to the less-restrictive state leases.
One of the big, new cabins was recently built next to Ulrich’s small, dark brown cottage. The two stand in sharp contrast.
“I’m all for the restrictions. My regret is that they didn’t do this much earlier,” Roberta Ulrich said. “They’re supposed to be cabins, not mansions. I don’t think any of us envisioned people would be building European-type chalets on Priest Lake, for crying out loud.”
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