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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho SupCourt tosses state cabin-site rent challenge

BOISE - The Idaho Supreme Court on Wednesday tossed out Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s legal challenge to state-owned cabin site rents on two Idaho lakes, which charged that the state Land Board violated the Idaho Constitution by setting the rents too low. But the high court didn’t rule on the merits of Wasden’s challenge, saying instead that it should have started in a lower court. Wasden said he’d head to district court and re-file the case. “Because of the critical importance of resolving this long-standing question, I plan to follow the Supreme Court’s advice and proceed to district court in order to vindicate the constitutional rights of Idaho school children and the other beneficiaries of the endowment trusts,” Wasden said in a statement. The Attorney General charged that the Land Board, of which he is a member, is violating the Idaho Constitution by not securing the maximum long-term return for the beneficiaries of the state’s endowment lands, chiefly Idaho’s public schools. The high court’s 3-2 decision, authored by Justice Joel Horton, didn’t dispute that. Instead, it essentially ruled on procedural grounds, saying Wasden could seek a preliminary injunction and declaratory judgment in district court, rather than going directly to the Supreme Court for an unusual writ of prohibition. Horton wrote that “there is a plain, speedy, and adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law such that the extraordinary remedy of a writ of prohibition would be improper.” Chief Justice Dan Eismann and Justice Pro Tem Linda Copple Trout concurred in the majority opinion. Justice Roger Burdick dissented, writing, “The facts in this case are not in dispute. The record clearly demonstrates that the Land Board is exceeding its discretion in leasing the cottage sites for less than market value and failing to obtain the maximum long-term financial return for the beneficiaries, which is a violation of both … (state law) and the Idaho Constitution. The majority does not deny this, instead finding that the Attorney General has other plain, speedy and adequate remedies available.” But Burdick said that’s not really the case. All of the state’s cabin site leases, including those at Priest Lake, expire this month and are up for renewal. Justice Warren Jones concurred in the dissent. The state Land Board voted 3-2 last March on new cabin-site rents for the next five years; Wasden was among the dissenters. The cabin sites include 355 at Priest Lake, on which private owners have built and owned their cabins, in some cases, for generations. The land is owned by the state endowment, and rents benefit public schools. Though Wasden contends the new rents are too low to meet constitutional requirements, cabin owners on the 167 state-owned cabin sites at Payette Lake in central Idaho have sued the state in district court, arguing that they’re too high. The new rent plan calls for rent increases of 9 percent a year for the next five years, but would still lead to an effective rent for next year of just 1.8 percent of the value of the lots. State law requires the state to charge “market” rent; since 1998, it’s set that at 2.5 percent of value, but repeated rent freezes, imposed at the request of leaseholders, have left the effective rate much lower. Still, cabin owners have complained that sudden, sharp rent increases could force them out of their longtime cabins, to make way for wealthier people to take over the prized lakefront land and build grand homes. In its March vote, the board set the new rents for the cabin sites at 4 percent of value per year, but pegged that percentage to a 10-year rolling average of land values, rather than to current value. Then, it imposed a five-year phase-in to get to that rent amount. Wasden argued that guaranteed that the state would charge below-market rents at least for the next five years. The Constitution requires the board to act only in the best interests of the beneficiaries of the state endowment - schoolchildren - and not for any other interest. That’s been upheld in previous cases that overturned laws requiring the board to consider such factors as the health of the state’s livestock industry in granting grazing leases on endowment land.