MCCALL, Idaho — Idaho officials on Tuesday voted to sell at auction a 14-acre “high-end” island in Payette Lake near the vacation and second-home town of McCall.
Republican Gov. Brad Little and four other members of the Idaho Land Board voted 5-0 to reaffirm a previous board decision to sell the island, potentially this fall.
The island has five lots, with one leased. State officials plan to offer the lots individually or the island as a whole and take whichever brings in the most money. Only two of the five lots are capable of having a septic system, officials said, limiting the value of the three other lots to “campsites” and likely making selling the entire island as a whole the best option.
“I kind of feel sorry for the current lessee,” Little said after the meeting. “I think somebody with really deep pockets is probably going to buy (the entire island) and only put one place on it.”
The state constitution requires the Land Board to maximize financial return over the long term, benefitting mainly public schools. State land managers say the island is underperforming, and selling it is in the state’s best interest.
Jim Laski of Bellevue is the current lease holder on an island lot, which has a cabin, and told the board he and his family have been good stewards and take seriously protecting the watershed. He asked the board to go forward with the auction with hopes of buying the lot from the state.
“Ten summers ago, I had the opportunity to acquire the lease on lot two of Cougar Island,” he told the board. “Since then, my family and I have spent as much time during the summer as possible enjoying the island and the unique beauty an Idaho mountain lake has to offer.”
Valley County commissioners opposed the auction and asked for more time so they could ask for donations and make some type of financial arrangement so the county could buy the island. Commissioners also proposed a possible land swap for county land.
“Cougar Island is a historical gem of Valley County," Valley County Commissioner Sherry Maupin told the board. “This island, which has been accessible for public use, is one of the many areas used to enhance our recreation economy."
But the board moved ahead with the auction.
Critics of the decision to auction off the island argue there are better ways to handle the situation. For example, Valley County Commissioners, the advocacy group United Payette, and the Idaho Conservation League are hoping to acquire the land to prevent it from becoming privatized.
“We'd like to hold off on this sale, give it a little bit more time and see whether the County and Idaho Conservation League and United Payette, which is a coalition of organizations and interests around, they can come together and identify some alternative approaches, whether it would be transferring it to the Idaho Department of Parks and Rec, working on a potential land exchange with the Forest Service, or potentially a conservation purchase that would keep those lands open to the public for future generations,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, External Relations Director for the Idaho Conservation League.
Oppenheimer says he understands the constitutional responsibility the Land Board has to maximize earning on endowment land, but they feel auctioning off the island just isn’t necessary.
“We're concerned that selling off this gem of an island in the middle of payout like is really sending the wrong message and is ultimately going to end up in more no trespassing signs going up. There's been a lot of concern that we've seen over the last few years with large, wealthy landowners coming in and purchasing lands that have historically been open to the public. And we're afraid that this is just another example of that,” Oppenheimer said
Land Board members had concerns about the timing of selling the property, with real estate sales appearing to soften recently.
But realtor Mark Bottles, who handles real estate auctions for the Land Board, said now is a good time to sell the island, and as a whole rather than as five individual lots.
“For these high-end assets, we're still seeing activity,” said Bottles, noting he started getting calls about the island following news reports of a potential auction. “They were interested (in the island) as a whole, not as a subdivision, as they called it. They would rather have something more exclusive."
Statewide, the Land Board directs the Idaho Department of Lands in managing about 3,900 square miles (10,100 square kilometers) of state-owned land.
The state manages about 285 square miles (740 square kilometers) around McCall, which includes Cougar Island. About 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) are primarily managed as timberland.
But land values have skyrocketed in recent years, outpacing the value of state-owned timberland in the McCall area, and forcing the Land Board to consider selling the land to fulfill its obligation to generate the most money for beneficiaries. Other state lands are facing similar pressure.
Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League said his and other groups would like to see the auction for the island delayed until a conservation deal can be struck.
“This is a very high-profile and high-conservation-value property,” he said. “We would like to see it preserved in some way, shape or form to have it conserved for the benefit of all Idahoans.”
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