McCALL, Idaho (CBS 2) — There's a battle brewing on Payette Lake in McCall over an events center that's being constructed near the lakefront.
The venue, known as the Lookout on the Lake, sits on the east side of the lake, south of Paradise Point and west of Shellworth Island in an area known and cherished for its natural atmosphere and beautiful surroundings. According to the developer, the land is intended as a day-use space, and is designed to be used for weddings, family reunions, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
But neighbors who live in condominiums just down the road on Tamarack Bay have raised concerns about the process involved in leasing the land, and the changes this space could bring to the area. Now, the group is petitioning to the Idaho Land Board in attempt to get the development stopped. The Idaho Department of Lands maintains though, that the Idaho Land Board followed proper leasing protocol, and that the terms and potential uses of the lease fit within the Idaho Constitution's realm as it applies to endowment trust land. (See below)
The lease of this property is a commercial recreation lease granted by the Idaho Department of Lands. In it, the 10-year lease draws out a number of specifications for the venue's approved uses and other requirements.
The lease covers 22 acres of land on the lakeshore front off of Eastside Drive, north of the Tamarack Bay Condominiums, and six acres of land on Shellworth Island. The base rent is listed as $4,000 annually, although the Department of Lands tells CBS 2 that the price will increase depending on the type of utilities and development that are put on the property.
The project's developer, Travis Leonard, said that the site will include space for pavers and an outdoor tent, along with a deck that's being constructed to overlook the water. There will be parking spaces put in to accommodate 25 to 30 vehicles on the property, while utilities like power, sewer and water will have to be brought in. Essentially, this site will not be connected to the city's sewer lines, and the lease states that the lessee will not be able to drill new water wells, or use existing ones.
"This lease will have a very low impact to the endowment land," said Idaho Department of Lands spokeswoman Sharla Arledge. "It's a very rustic venue for weddings, events and other gatherings. I think it will be a very positive venue for the community. It will bring in business. People who use the venue will likely stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants, bring in caterers, and really enjoy and spend their money in McCall."
News of the development rocked the boat for neighbors who live about around the corner in the Tamarack Bay Condominiums. Residents there say they weren't notified of the plans beforehand, and instead were clued in when they noticed trees being cut down on the property around the corner.
"I kept hearing chainsaws," said Bill Ahrens, who has owned one of the condos for a few years. "[My wife] Suzan and I walked over there and saw guys cutting down trees."
Bill and Suzan say they cherish this area for its stunning beauty, and the peace and solace the quiet bay brings with it.
"We absolutely adore it," Bill said. "It's just heaven. You look out here at night and you can't see a light."
Some of their neighbors live in the complex have been around much longer.
"We bought our unit in 1973, when the building was just being framed up," said Ann Hett, a full-time resident.
Now, many of them fear the events venue - and the noise and crowds it could bring with it - will change the setting drastically, and have additional negative impacts on the surrounding area.
Neighbors and some in the McCall community recently drafted a letter to the Idaho Land Board and the governor (who serves as chairman of the board) asking officials to halt the construction of the events center. Here's an in-depth breakdown of what they are worried about, and how the Idaho Department of Lands is responding to or addressing those areas of concern:
Perhaps one of the biggest frustrations neighbors and some in the community shared with CBS 2 News was the lack of public notice about the proposed development on this site, and public auction that would decide what to do with it.
Many in the city of McCall are familiar with the Department of Land's sometimes controversial process for auctioning off cottage sites that sit on endowment trust land (see below), which requires public auction on the sale of the lots. Neighbors at Tamarack Bay say there should have been some sort of public notification in the community about the proposed lease and development of this particular site, and that there should have been a public auction process involved. Had that been the case, neighbors say they (and perhaps many others in the community) would have banded together to oppose the development and come up with a different use for this specific lease that didn't include development on the land.
"We were not made aware that there was any interest in the state [developing the land]," said Mel Switzer, who has lived in McCall for 20 years. "If we had, we had an interest in it, the camps around here, all the neighborhoods around would have been interested in keeping that the way it was. We had the idea that the Department of Lands was serving all of Idaho."
Endowment trust land isn't a widely-understood concept in some parts of the country, but in Idaho, and in this case specifically, some of the answers to this concern lie in the details about how this type of land is managed, sold and leased.
In short, endowment trust land is land that's managed by the state of Idaho, and specifically entrusted to the State Board of Land Commissioners. There are 2.4 million acres of endowment trust land in Idaho, which is tied to nine different funds and beneficiaries. Essentially, money made off of the sale or lease of this land is directed to Idaho public schools, the University of Idaho, Lewis-Clark State College, Idaho State University, state hospitals for the mentally ill, state veterans homes, Idaho's juvenile corrections system and prison system, the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind, or the Capitol Commission.
So how does this apply to this lease? In short, the Idaho Department of Lands says the process for dealing with the sale of endowment trust land (like the cottage sites) is different than the process for leasing land.
If this land were sold, by law, it would have had to go through a public notice and auction process, where interested parties could make an offer on the land. However, the Idaho Department of Lands says this particular development didn't require that, simply because the land is only being leased to the lessee.
"This is a lease," Idaho Department of Lands spokeswoman Sharla Arledge said. "If there's a conflict for a lease, then there's a public auction process. If you have more than one entity wanting to lease the same property, you'd have an auction for it. There wasn't a conflict in this particular case."
Instead, Arledge says endowment trust land leases go through a different process, where lands available for lease and active lease applications are both posted on their website for a period of 30 days. If no conflicting interest is shown during that time, then the land is available for lease.
"We did follow the standard procedure for this lease process," Arledge said. "The Idaho Department of Lands doesn't go forward with a lease unless its legal."
Another technical piece of this controversy has to do with how much the lessee is paying in annual rent. The Idaho Department of Lands says the base price of a lease is determined by things like utilities in use, and the amount of development on the land. Neighbors who have property on the lakefront though, say the price is unfairly cheap in comparison to the price that others pay for each acre of waterfront property they own.
"It's almost an unheard of bargain," Switzer said of the property's $4,000 annual base rent price.
Neighbors argue that this price, regardless of what development goes on it, doesn't satisfy the mandate in the Idaho Constitution that requires the state to sell and lease endowment trust land to essentially acquire the largest sum of money that is possible off of the land (in order to benefit public schools and other state institutions).
The Idaho Constitution references this type of lease or sale in Article IX, Section 8, which mandates that the lands will be managed “in such manner as will secure the maximum long-term financial return to the institution to which [it is] granted.”
The Idaho Department Lands though, is satisfied with the returns being generated from this lease.
"We believe this is the appropriate amount for the lease of this land," Arledge said. "The rent goes up based on the amount of land that;s developed, and that can be anything from pavers that are set down with a tent over it, or a trail that's developed. So we're talking very basic development. As they use more of that land, the rent goes up. With a cottage site, you have the sewer, the water, the other utilities that takes the value and the price way up."
Right now, the developer tells CBS 2 he has no plans to add extra development on either the 22 acres along the shoreline or the six acres of land on Shellworth Island.
The Lookout on the Lake will again, only be allowed for day-use. However, neighbors are taking issue with the fact that the venue will bring potentially large groups of of people to the area, as well as amplified noise that will be allowed on site until 11 p.m.
"We can hear little kids talking across the lake," Bill Ahrens said. "So to have 275 people 1,000 feet away being loud and crazy until 11:00 p.m., it's nuts! That's our biggest issue."
The venue's maximum occupancy is set at 275 people, (including 250 guests and up to 25 staff members), but the developer tells CBS 2 that rarely does he expect that many people to be on the property at one time. Leonard says that he and his wife will also essentially approve each event that gets booked on the site, depending on the size and nature of the gathering. Beyond that, he says that event organizers will turn any speakers at the venue facing inward (instead of out toward the lake) to mitigate neighbors' concerns about noise. But Tamarack Bay homeowners believe that won't be enough to stop the noise from disrupting an otherwise quiet area late at night.
"I think it will change things dramatically here," homeowner Ann Hett said. "Just the noise factor alone. Idaho prides itself on its pristine lakes and rivers and our lovely forests and so on, and that will change. It will change for all of the lake."
Going hand-in-hand with frustrations over potential noise concerns, neighbors also fear that this development will bring an unhealthy amount of traffic on the road, which is often used by bikers, walkers and other recreationalists. While the developer says the property has parking space for 25 to 30 vehicles, residents nearby say that doesn't match up with the maximum occupancy limit of the venue, which would likely bring more cars to the area. Leonard said he's addressed this point already, and will not be allowing parking on Eastside Drive, but only in the designated spots. Beyond that, he says he will expect guests to shuttle in and out of the venue.
Neighbors also tell CBS 2 they fear this space will become a bit of a party venue, which would encourage loud noise and increase their worries about things like drunk driving. With that, they fear there may be a strain put on emergency services who would have to respond to situations at the venue. Both the developer and the Idaho Department of Lands though, attest that this area had, at times, become a bit of a dumping ground for people, whether it be groups of party-goers who left behind empty cans and beer bottles, or other individuals who would dump waste and other old belongings on the grounds.
Those who live close to the venue were concerned that the venue would eliminate public access to the site and the public beach below. However, the Idaho Department of Lands clarified that a commercial recreation lease like this is known as a non-exclusive lease, meaning that whenever the venue is not in use, the public will still be able to access the land and the beachfront.
A final issue neighbors have with this development is the potential environmental impact, that they say began when construction crews started cutting down trees in the fall. In total, 14 trees were cut down: 10 live trees and four dead ones.
"It's just kind of what they're doing to the landscape," Switzer said. "Within just a matter of a couple of weeks, they had cut down trees, removed fish habitat, started constructing a more formal path to the beach, they've laid in gravel roads and a more formal parking area."
The project's developer told CBS 2 that no additional trees will be removed from the site, and that most all of the construction work was finished as of this winter, aside from the deck overlook which will be completed some time in the spring. Additionally, some in the community fear the site could bring water quality concerns, due to things like dust and any potential well-drilling. The lease for this property, though, states that the lessee will not be allowed to drill a well for water. The developer will not hook into the city's sewer line, meaning that sewer needs will be addressed with porta-potties and washing stations that would be brought in.
The developer tells CBS 2 News that he complied with the state on the terms of the lease, and deferred to the land board on specifics in that agreement. He also said he reached out to neighbors at Tamarack Bay before construction began to let them know about his plans, and to direct any questions or concerns his way. After not hearing from residents there, he said he was taken by surprise when he heard that attorneys had gotten involved with writing to the governor and the land board.
The director of the Idaho Department of Lands has since responded to the letter written by Givens Pursley LLP on behalf of the Tamarack Bay residents, saying in short that their request for termination of the lease was denied. Neighbors however, aren't giving up their fight, and are now asking others in the community who share their concerns to write letters to the governor and the Idaho Department of Lands moving forward. They're also planning to meet with IDL representatives at the group's next land board meeting.
Stay tuned for additional developments on this story in the coming months