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‘The road is not going to be given up’: Public access to Lake Pend Oreille at Camp Bay at center of dispute

Bonner County District Court could soon decide the fate of a disputed public road with access to Lake Pend Oreille, if the parties do not come to an agreement before then.

A developer building a subdivision near Camp Bay on the Sagle peninsula, M3 ID Camp Bay LLC, wants to make private and pave a 2,550-foot segment of Camp Bay Road, which cuts through the middle of the 407-acre property and leads to the lake shore.

Area residents who use the road to access the lake are fighting against that plan. Locals use the modest beach to skip rocks, put in kayaks, walk their dogs or just enjoy the view of the bay and the Cabinet Mountains.

“But generally, it’s pretty quiet,” said Jennifer Arn, who lives on Camp Bay Road with her husband, Fred.

At issue is where, precisely, the road ends and whether it provides legal public access to the lake. If the road ends before it reaches the lake and does not provide public access, M3 could have another chance to petition Bonner County to vacate the road.

Supporters of public access contend that the road ends at the high-water mark of the lake and therefore provides the public a beachfront of 50 feet of the width of the road.

“It will never be able to accommodate a lot of people with only 50 feet,” Fred Arn said, “But, it does take a little bit of pressure off Garfield Bay,” where it is crowded and difficult to find parking. “There’s no public access to the better part of these lakes. So the few spots that there are, people flock to.”

The case is under a second judicial review after the board denied M3’s request to vacate earlier this year. A hearing has been postponed until Aug. 10, to allow the parties time to negotiate a possible resolution.

The Camp Bay property was homesteaded by John and Kate Van Schravendyk in 1902. The county built the road as a public right of way at their request in 1908.

One of their grandsons is Jim Green, president of Green Enterprises, which sold the property to M3 in 2021 after petitioning Bonner County to abandon the road.

The Bonner County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the petition and vacated the road during a public hearing in April 2021, despite public comments in opposition.

In order to abandon a public right of way, Idaho law states that it must be in the public interest. The commissioners determined that it was, because it would eliminate the county’s cost in maintaining the road.

The Arns disagree, noting that the state provides counties funding for road maintenance based on road mileage. They challenged the commissioners’ decision in a judicial review in the district court.

Eventually, Judge Cynthia K.C. Meyer vacated the board’s decision and remanded the issue back to the board for further proceedings, ruling the board’s reasoning was arbitrary.

Ten months later, on Feb. 16, the county commissioners denied the developer’s petition to vacate, concluding that “the abandonment of the public right-of-way is not in the public interest” after all.

After hearing testimony from both sides on where the road legally ends, the board said it could not determine whether the road provides public access because they could not conclude that debate. However, “the mere possibility that Camp Bay Road could provide public access to Lake Pend Oreille is reason enough to deny the vacation request.”

M3 filed a request for another judicial review of the board’s latest decision. The petition also asks the court to determine whether Camp Bay Road terminates before the “natural” or “ordinary” high-water mark of the lake.

M3 argues that the road terminates “well before” the high-water mark and thus does not provide public access. If the court agrees, M3 requests the court remand the decision back to the board again, since the board’s decision hinged on that issue.

But in their original request to vacate the road, Green Enterprises and M3 seemed to acknowledge that the road ends at the high-water mark, describing Camp Bay Road as “an unpaved gravel road from Sagle Road to the termination at the High Water Mark of Lake Pend Oreille,” although they denied that meant the road provides public access to the lake.

And the county planning department prepared a staff report that concluded “there is no public access to the Lake as the road ends at the high-water mark.”

In the first judicial review, the court found that “this conclusion is erroneous” under the public trust doctrine because “the state holds the title to the beds of navigable lakes and streams below the natural high-water mark for the use and benefit of the whole people,” and the doctrine “preserves the public’s right of use in such land.”

The Arns, who say they intervened in the latest case to “represent the public’s interest,” also say the judge’s order on the first judicial review made it clear that the road provides access. It describes Camp Bay Road as “a public road that provides access to Lake Pend Oreille” and a “road in Bonner County that extends from Sagle Road to its termination at the high-water mark of Lake Pend Oreille.”

Bill Brownlee, the owner of M3 who plans to live in one of the properties on the lake, said he filed for review because the company has made significant investment in the property and master plan based on the assumption that the road was vacated.

Development of the property is going forward anyway. Some of the private roads have been paved, and one home is already under construction with another starting soon.

Last year, M3 entered a cost-sharing agreement with the county in which the company agreed to contribute to paving the rest of Camp Bay Road, the 2.2 miles from Sagle Road to the property line.

Brownlee has taken pains to design the community as “low-density” to preserve its natural character. There are eight lots on the lakefront and 32 nonwaterfront lots ranging from 1.5 acres up to 60 acres. One of the lakefront parcels will be a common lot with a beach and marina providing lake access for nonwaterfront lots in the development.

A hearing that had been scheduled for July 6 has been rescheduled for Aug. 10. The hearing was meant for the court to decide if it has the authority it decide where the road terminates. The date has been postponed to allow the parties to work out an agreement.

Whatever that might look like, “The road is not going to be given up,” Fred Arn said. “The Arns are not going to walk away from the road.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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