Residents Fight County on Public Lake Access

By Beacon Staff

Neighbors of a proposed public lake access site in Lakeside have come out in force against the project, but considering the rarity of acquiring such a property at a low price they’ll be hard-pressed to convince county officials to abandon the idea.

Flathead County Weed and Parks Director Jed Fischer said rising costs have made it increasingly difficult for his department to secure and retain lands for public use. For example, the county’s lease on Kalispell’s Conrad Complex sports facility, located southwest of Wal-Mart and used by thousands of Flathead Valley residents for softball and baseball, may be in jeopardy, he said. The county’s 50-year lease of a dollar a year runs out this summer, and early talks indicate the property’s owners may up the rate to as much as $50,000 annually.

“We took that from a buffalo pasture to a beautiful sports facility, but if they ask for that price we can’t do it; we’ll have to give it up,” Fischer said, then mentioned the opportunity for public lake access in Lakeside. “I’m in no position right now to turn down opportunities. It’s slim pickings and there’s already a serious shortage of access. If we don’t get it for the general average Joe now, we’re not going to get it.”

Last month a Lakeside landowner offered to lease the county 65 feet of lakefront property at $600 a year for the next 30 years. The landowner asked that the property, which is located on the north end of Lakeshore Boulevard adjacent to county land, be used for public benefit and that he remain anonymous.

Fischer and county commissioners jumped at the chance to sign the lease agreement. Neighbors have since argued against the planned dock, swimming area and two parking spaces, citing concerns with public safety, increased traffic and the small size of the property. Opponents also say the proposed park may be neglected. Several Lakeshore Boulevard residents suggested the parks board find additional access for the location or find another site.

County Commissioner Dale Lauman, who represents the Lakeside region, said he understands neighbors’ concerns, but hopes the community can work with the county to address those worries without losing “a nice gift and rare opportunity.” No strangers to conflict over land use, county commissioners are surprised that such an altruistic offer to the public has generated such strident objections. “We have opposition all the time to development or subdivisions, but where someone is actually trying to do something nice, that’s something new,” Commissioner Gary Hall said.

Lakeside residents have offered to begin fundraising to purchase another location in a different area. The Lakeside Community Council recommended the county consider disposing of this property and acquiring another, more suitable, location.

But Fischer said finding and purchasing another site is no small task – similar lots sell for millions and in his 10 years with the county’s weed and parks department, he has never received an offer like this.

“This type of opportunity just doesn’t come along,” Fischer said. “The opposition is saying this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get another site, because neighbors are so against having it they’ll raise funds to put it somewhere else. I understand their concerns, and I respect that, but I’m thinking of 80,000 residents who could utilize this site, and you’re going to have to show me the money before I walk away from a sure thing.”

Fischer said, if realized, the public access would be reservation only, meaning the public would call the parks department to reserve times to use the boat dock in order to prevent back-up and overflow on the narrow road. It’s a format he has had success with at other parks.

Currently, the county manages 90 public parks with a total budget of $480,000 a year comprised of monies from the general fund and fees from recreational charges. Including leased sites, it has five lake access parks: one in Bigfork, Somers beach and two small, boat launching parks in Lakeside. Fischer said the new park would be significantly larger than the other two Lakeside locations, neither of which includes any parking.

The county is in the process of developing a countywide master plan identifying parks that are unusable or too expensive to develop, in favor of improving remaining parks, Fischer said. “We’re trying to be creative in order to maximize our funds and use them on the parks best suited for the public.”

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