The developers of an exclusive golf community near Eureka with a course designed by PGA legend Nick Faldo owe their neighbors $1.35 million, a jury ruled in Lincoln County District Court on April 4.
The jury found that the Wilderness Club acted in malice when it cleared out trees for a roadway on the property of Eureka homeowners Craig and Lisa McKay. The jury awarded $356,500 for loss of property and $1 million in punitive damages. The Wilderness Club’s actions did not warrant trespassing, though, the jury ruled.
Sean Frampton, a Whitefish attorney who represents the Wilderness Club, said his clients will appeal.
“We’re disappointed in the verdict,” he said.
Craig McKay, who works as a fisherman in Alaska and wants to retire in the next few years, said in an interview last week he was pleased with the jury’s ruling, saying the long legal process that started last June has exhausted him.
“The job wasn’t easy,” McKay said. “It was like a reality program right off TV with all the characters and the chain of events.”
The trial was the culmination of a drawn-out legal battle that has revolved around two main issues: a Wilderness Club golf maintenance facility and a roadway leading to it. The Wilderness Club owns 50 acres in the Koocanusa Estates subdivision and the McKays own 30 in the same subdivision northwest of Eureka. Forty of the club’s 50 acres are on one side of the McKays and the remaining 10 are on the other side. In total, the Wilderness Club owns 550 acres.
Last May the club’s developers cleared out trees on the McKays’ property as the initial step for a roadway leading to a maintenance facility being constructed on the 10-acre plot. A year earlier, trees had been cleared there to make room for the building.
The McKays filed a lawsuit in October of last year seeking damages on the basis that the developers had trespassed on their land when they cleared the trees, violated the Koocanusa Estates’ subdivision covenants and caused damages on their property by removing the trees.
Frampton argued in court that his clients had access to an easement on the McKays’ property and that the McKays had given consent for the roadway, though Craig McKay said, from his conversations with local Realtor and Wilderness Club site manager Joe Purdy, he had only agreed to allowing a large swath of trees to be cleared for a utility line. He never knew a road would be the result, he said. The road, barring a successful appeal from the Wilderness Club, will not be finished, though maintenance workers have other road accesses to the facility.
McKay is dismayed that maintenance workers, who he points out aren’t landowners in the Koocanusa Estates, will still be using other nearby subdivision roads.
“I’m going to learn how to live with it,” he said. “I’ll have to reprogram myself.”
Furthermore, Frampton argued, the subdivision covenants were moot because other Koocanusa Estates residents had already violated them by further subdividing their lots and constructing a commercial building. But a judge, in an action separate from the trial, ruled in March that the Wilderness Club had violated the commercial use covenant.
The Wilderness Club is a 550-acre golf community that will include 272 home sites, 47 luxury cabins and its centerpiece: the Faldo-designed golf course. It will also include golf practice facilities, a spa, clubhouse, lodge, natural trail system, concierge service and other features. A short distance from its western boundary is Lake Koocanusa.
The golf course will open this summer and the maintenance facility will also be completed by then, though various features like the clubhouse will still need more time, Frampton said. The course snakes through four miles of the Tobacco Valley, with the 30-acre Wilderness Lake resting in the middle. Faldo, who won several major PGA tournaments, including three Masters tournaments, has become renowned in recent years for his golf course designs across the world.
In the appeal, Frampton is hoping to prove that the amount of money awarded is excessive in relation to the evidence presented at the trial.
“It may have been a case of passion and prejudice, a big development in a small county,” Frampton said. “If we don’t believe there’s evidence to support the award, then the jurors awarding that amount of money may have been relying on some of their passion and prejudice they brought to the jury room that was not in the evidence.”
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