HAYDEN, Idaho – A year ago, the lakefront parcel was covered with trees, brush and a small A-frame cabin. Now, the land sits scraped completely bald. With each rain, muddy water rolls off the site and further silts up Hayden Lake.
The landowner, Spokane resident Sharon Peterman, faces criminal charges, fines and jail time. Peterman and her contractor had been warned repeatedly, but like a growing number of other property owners, they ignored the law and went forward with excavation, said Rand Wichman, Kootenai County’s building and planning director.
“They knew about the rules and disregarded them anyway,” he said.
Local officials hope the criminal charges will slow what they say is an increasingly blatant disregard for laws meant to protect North Idaho’s lakes and rivers. Some builders are now shrugging off the threat of a $300 daily fine for violating the laws, Wichman said.
“It might cost somebody $10,000 to comply, to do it right,” he said. “If the threat is a $300 daily fine, that’s peanuts.”
Last year, Spokane businessman Thomas Hamilton dug out a section of the Spokane River in front of his new home, despite repeated warnings that he did not have the necessary permits. Hamilton later pleaded guilty to one charge of construction without a permit. He was fined $300.
Peterman’s property is located along a shallow bay on the north end of Hayden Lake. Sometime in late June or July, the half-acre lot was cleared all the way to the shoreline, in direct violation of a law forbidding any disturbance within 25 feet of the shore, said Kootenai County planner George Evjen. There were no erosion control measures taken, either.
“They didn’t do anything to protect the environment,” Evjen said.
Peterman and her contractor, Design Services Northwest, of Spokane, were aware the work was in violation of the law – a stop-work notice had been posted on the property – but the work continued, Evjen said. Peterman now faces three misdemeanor charges, up to six months in jail and $300 per day for each of the violations. Peterman could not be reached for comment and Design Services Northwest did not return a telephone call.
Part of the problem, Evjen said, is that the county’s four building inspectors and one code inspector can issue a stop-work notice, but they have little power to actually enforce the orders or issue citations. To actually halt a renegade landowner or contractor, action is sometimes needed from the county prosecutor’s office. “It’s a long, drawn-out process,” Evjen said. “The prosecutor is already overloaded to the max.”
Not long ago, most problems were fixed over a handshake, Evjen said. The county would simply point out the problem and it would be fixed. But the building boom has resulted in skyrocketing property prices – especially for land on or overlooking a lake – and has attracted some unscrupulous contractors to the area, Evjen said.
“The type of people we’re dealing with now have a different mindset, and the mindset is all about ‘me,’ ” Evjen said.
Small, steep lots with barely a glimpse of Hayden Lake are now selling for $200,000. Those buying the lots are building towering mansions, not small A-frame cabins set back in the trees. The threats to the lake recently prompted the Hayden Lake Recreational Water and Sewer District to hire a watershed manager to keep an eye on the development.
Todd Walker, the lake’s new watershed manager, now drives around the lake in a car or a boat several times a week looking for potential violations. He reports any trouble to the county, but he said most violators don’t seem to care that their actions could be filling the lake with sediment and weed-boosting phosphorous.
“Most of these people I’m dealing with are people that don’t even go to the county and ask” about regulations, Walker said. “We keep going in and stopping them with stop-work orders. The problem so far is they really haven’t been reprimanded.”
There’s growing concern that some of the building practices not only threaten the lake, but even nearby homes and roadways, Walker said. One building site on a steep hillside along East Upper Hayden Lake Road looks like an open pit mine. The road in front of the site is often covered with mud. Homeowners downhill from the gaping hole have been flooded previously with torrents of mud and water.
“We’re all concerned about it,” Walker said. “This is a potentially big problem.”
County Planning Director Wichman said he hopes the criminal charges against Peterman might prompt others around the lake to think twice before breaking the law in their quest to build the perfect lakeside retreat. But as the case moves forward, the property continues to sit bare, dumping more sediment into the lake with each rain.
“The impact to the lake will continue through the winter,” Wichman said of the property. “The site is still not buttoned up and in compliance. If it’s not stabilized by now, you’re not going to get vegetation growing on it before winter.”