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News >  Idaho

Commissioners want out of beach lawsuit

The Kootenai County Commission wants nothing to do with Coeur d’Alene’s lawsuit about who owns Sanders Beach, and fears the county’s involvement might expose taxpayers to lawsuits and unwanted costs.

But county Prosecutor Bill Douglas said that, as an independently elected official, the decision is his. The mission of the prosecutor is to protect residents’ interests, Douglas said, and that means ensuring violence doesn’t escalate on the popular beach stretching between 12th and 15th streets. The best way to do that is to clarify the high-water mark.

“I’m staying in,” Douglas said. “I have the authority to do that. I feel this is a righteous complaint. I’m interested in maintaining the peace and ensuring property disputes don’t escalate into raging violence.”

Coeur d’Alene and the county are asking a court to once and for all determine the legal high-water mark on Sanders Beach. The high-water mark shows where private land ends and where publicly owned water begins, which would determine whether the beach is public or private.

The lawsuit names the Sanders Beach homeowners between 12th and 15th streets, the Sanders Beach Preservation Association that advocates for public use and the Idaho Department of Lands – parties that have stakes in the location of the high-water mark.

On Monday, retired Judge James Judd, who was selected by the state Supreme Court to hear the lawsuit, rejected a motion made by the Sanders Beach Preservation Association to keep the state Land Board from giving up the lakeshore above 2,128 feet to the private property owners.

Judd said the Land Board has authority to disclaim the title to that portion of the beach but doing so wouldn’t decide the location of the high-water mark. Judd said a court must make that determination.

An update on the Sanders Beach lawsuit is on the Land Board’s agenda for today’s monthly meeting in Boise. Deputy Attorney General Nick Krema wasn’t available for comment, but most people involved in the lawsuit said it’s doubtful the board would take any action on dismissing the titles without first having a hearing.

Each summer the conflict between Sanders Beach homeowners and other users of the sandy shoreline gets more heated, occasionally erupting into physical fights and verbal disputes. The city and county want the court to determine the high-water mark so there is no longer any question about the beach’s ownership.

Last month, in the first court hearing, Judd said the county needs to move fast to “prevent anarchy” in the approaching summer months. Another hearing is scheduled for March 24-25.

Commission Chairman Gus Johnson said he understands the city’s plight but doesn’t believe the county has any businesses in the dispute, especially since it poses a financial risk for county taxpayers.

The commission on Friday sent a letter to Douglas stating that the county’s insurance company won’t provide coverage if the county is sued for damages stemming from the lawsuit. For example, if a judge determines that the beach is privately owned, then landowners could sue the county for damages such as attorney fees.

“This decision could potentially have a significant fiscal impact on the taxpayers of this County,” said the letter signed by Johnson and fellow Commissioners Katie Brodie and Rick Currie.

Douglas said that a 1979 state Supreme Court decision gives the county prosecutor the ability to bring a lawsuit to represent all county residents in matters of public property. He added that county sheriff’s deputies also can provide backup to Coeur d’Alene Police officers if there is a dispute on the beach or anywhere else in the city limits.

Another interest the county has is with property tax assessments.

Local attorney John Magnuson, who represents the majority of the Sanders Beach homeowners, said that the commission recognizes that the lawsuit is “utterly baseless.”

He said if the pending lawsuit clouds the title to his client’s property, making it difficult to sell, than someone will have to pay. And that would be the county and city.

Johnson added that he personally doesn’t believe there is any dispute over who owns the beach. As a child, he said, he used to bike to Sanders Beach to swim, knowing that was allowable only because the property owners gave the public permission to use the beach.

“People abused it,” Johnson said about the garbage and noise that disturbs the homeowners. “It’s not like the old Coeur d’Alene anymore.”

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