COEUR d’ALENE — Imagine the beach along the dike road by North Idaho College covered in condominiums.
No more summer barbecues while happy children build castles on the shore. No more romantic sunset walks as lakewater laps sand-sprinkled bare feet. No front row spots for fireworks. No views. No public access.
"I’ll be walking along there and I’ll see people down there at the barbecue pits or they’ll be playing around, and I think quietly to myself, ‘It came very close that you couldn’t be here,’" said retired NIC instructor Tony Stewart. "I think that every time I go through and see people playing and having a good time."
It is a reality that could have been, if not for the fast and fierce action of those who understood the value of public access and preserving the beach for posterity.
The present-day monetary value of that 3,410-foot stretch of beach is more than $70 million — its appraised value was near $50 million in 2007 — but when condos were proposed 46 years ago, those who opposed realized you cannot put a price on paradise.
“There’s a moment that comes along for a decision, and you have to make it right then or it’s gone forever,” Stewart said. "It all started with the staff of the Cardinal Review."
Student journalists in early 1972 at NIC caught wind of plans by Spokane-based Pack River Properties, which then owned the land, to construct a condo complex on the waterfront near the college. They brought the news to Stewart, who discussed it with students and faculty. At once, the Committee to Prevent Construction of the Proposed Coeur d'Alene Lakefront Condominiums was formed, with Stewart at the helm.
“They thought I would be an activist with them,” Stewart said. “This is part of the legacy of those wonderful students who cared that way."
This was mid-January, 1972. A student petition immediately began to circulate, and by early February, hundreds of signatures had been gathered to prevent the construction.
"It would have changed the face of the entire downtown core, and certainly the college,” said Christie Wood, chair of the NIC board. "The beach and the beautiful grounds that we enjoy at the college, that is the face of the college. If you look at all of our marketing materials that we send out to students, the beach is a big draw to students and the whole community. I can’t even imagine. The view would be blocked. It would be private access."
The "beach condominium controversy" spread through town like wildfire. Media coverage was daily and the "Petition to Protect Ft. Sherman Lakefront Area" was distributed to Lake City citizens by volunteers who went door to door despite the snow. In just more than three weeks, 3,504 adult signatures and 150 signatures from local school kids had been gathered. With a population of just more than 16,200 people, those signatures represented more than 22 percent of the population.
"We’re very very fortunate for these community activists. I didn’t even realize it was a month turnaround,” Wood said. “Today, you have social media where maybe you can make things happen quickly, but that was walking the beat. They just did an amazing campaign.”
The signatures were delivered just in time for a Feb. 15 city council meeting.
"The place was packed with our supporters,” Stewart said. "But the officials from Pack River were very polite and very courteous. That’s a really important point. It was all really good dialogue."
As the petition drive took place, late environmental attorney Scott Reed examined the legal aspect of the condo controversy. When the Winton Lumber Company sold the land in the 1930s, it stipulated that the property could not be used for commercial purposes. It was discovered that when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lifted the dike road and moved it inward at one point, NIC owned 19 feet of land off the dike road toward the lake and the beach, thus land-locking any path for construction.
Reed, with his understanding of tort and common law, also prepared a "Declaration Concerning Real Property Use," which many senior citizens signed to declare they had used the beach as a path for more than 40 years without objection from the property owners, thus establishing "prescriptive rights."
Stewart praises Reed's swift thinking and commitment to finding answers; he dedicated the case study, "The Story of How a Grassroots Campaign Saved 3,410-Feet of Public Beach from Condominiums: 1972-1977," to his longtime friend and colleague.
“The dedication to Scott Reed of this is just so essential because he was one of the most brilliant minds in the field of law,” Stewart said. "He had that kind of ability to think through the process."
Reed, who died at 87 in 2015, was also instrumental in preserving Tubbs Hill, a separate project.
Citizens, students, community leaders, civic groups, legislators and more weighed in on the condo issue, and before they even submitted an official application, Pack River officials offered to sell the property for $800,000.
“The response of the college and the city was, ‘We can’t afford it,’” Stewart said with a chuckle.
“Here’s the magic thing,” he said. “Scott Reed went to (then-NIC President) Barry Schuler, and they went to Pack River and negotiated it down to $260,000. It was private negotiations between the two sources."
“Isn’t that amazing?” Wood said. “Parallel with what’s happening today ... It’s been a little over a decade that the college went through the process of buying the education corridor, which was the lumber site. We went through a lawsuit over that, there was the pushback from people who wanted it for private enterprise.”
Pack River voluntarily went into receivership of the property with Bob DeArmond, who owned the DeArmond mill.
“Mr. DeArmond was the key person that Scott and Barry Schuler worked with to bring (the price) down,” Stewart said. "In those days people had those kinds of relationships."
Several entities kicked in funds, including the Idaho State Waterways, Kootenai County Boat Licenses, North Idaho College and a federal grant from the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.
The purchase was made in 1977. A decade later, the beach was dedicated to The Coeur d'Alene Tribe, named "Yap-Keehn-Um" (The Gathering Place) to honor the many years the Coeur d'Alenes had hosted other tribes during annual celebrations on that piece of summer paradise. The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations commissioned and purchased a sign to be erected before the ceremony, with the stipulation the Tribe give the beach its name.
The dedication happened on July 18 of that year, and was attended by dignitaries including then-Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council Chair Ernie Stensgar and the Council, then-Coeur d'Alene Mayor Raymond Stone and then-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus.
Another celebration was held during the 30th anniversary of the beach purchase in 2007 when Reed announced the monetary value of the land. This event was hosted by NIC and attended by representatives, dancers and drummers from the Tribe.
Wood said another celebration will most likely be scheduled to honor the 40th anniversary before school lets out for the summer.
"On all these projects, whatever it is, they only can succeed through collaboration and coalition,” Stewart said.
“And strong community leaders that are willing to step up and work hard," Wood said. "When you look around, all the things that make up the heart of Coeur d'Alene, you can picture our community leaders’ faces that worked so hard to make it happen."