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City of McCall urges county and Land Board to put a stop to Cougar Island auction

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The City of McCall is continuing its fight to save Cougar Island. 

At 14.21-acres, Cougar Island is the largest island in Payette Lake. In June, the Idaho Department of Lands said it would move forward with auctioning the island, which is part of Idaho’s endowment land. 

“Big Payette Lake is the sole source of drinking water for our community. It is a critical resource for our community that must be protected,” the city wrote in a letter to the Idaho State Land Board. 

During a special meeting, the McCall City Council unanimously voted to send two letters, one to the Valley County Commissioners, asking them to take legal action that could stop the auction. The other went to the Idaho Department of Lands, urging it to consider what they call the importance of the land before the auction.

Commissioners’ letter

In the letter to the county commissioners, the city starts by explaining its shared concern about losing land to recreate and the impact on drinking water, then asks them to take action. 

Valley County has been working to transition all cottage sites surrounding the lake to the Payette Lakes Recreational Water and Sewer District sewer system. Developments on Payette Lake’s perimeter are required to be serviced by a Department of Environmental Quality sewer system, not septic. This is a major concern outlined in the letter. 

“Extending sewer lines to the island will be difficult and extremely expensive. IDL’s ‘perc testing’ of the island as part of the appraisal process causes us great alarm because it indicates the intent for septic systems to be installed, which should not be allowed for the same reasons septic systems are not allowed on any other shoreline property of Payette Lake,” the letter said. 

The city then lays out two approaches the county can take to protect Cougar Island, the first is a resolution. The resolution would need to be adopted before the state auction would declare the island in Payette Lake an “Area of Critical Concern.”

​​”…which then triggers environmental impact assessment requirements for your review prior to any proposed development applications,” the letter said. 

The second request asks the commission to consider adopting an emergency ordinance. The ordinance would prohibit the development of islands in the lake. 

“The basis for the emergency is the need for wastewater disposal regulations in the county code specific to islands,” the letter reads. “If the county wishes to pursue the creation of new wastewater disposal regulations for the islands, city planning staff is available to assist county planning staff with the development of code language for presentation to the McCall Area Planning and Zoning Commission and public hearing/adoption by the County Commission upon your request.”

“Impact Idaho for generations” 

The letter to IDL reinforces what the city expressed earlier in the year: that the development of land around Big Payette Lake is a top concern for the community that will “impact Idaho for generations.” 

The letter explains the city has asked county commissioners to adopt an emergency ordinance that will help protect the island and the water. 

“The city is therefore strongly encouraging Valley County to adopt an emergency ordinance prohibiting development on islands in their jurisdiction until a county code can be adopted regulating wastewater systems on islands in order to protect our drinking water source. Likewise, the city strongly encourages the Land Board to not accept bids for the Island, in whole or in part, that intend to develop the lot(s) with any kind of infrastructure requiring septic systems as you cannot make any representations this will be approved,” the letter said. 

The city is asking that IDL prioritize conservation easements to protect parcels near the lake and allow recreation uses. They are pleading with the Land Board to only consider the lot sales to purchasers who present conservation easements in their proposals. 

During the meeting, the city opted to add a line about the McCall area comprehensive plan, emphasizing the importance of protecting shoreline areas around the lake. 

“Our community, and all of Idaho, does not want to lose access to public lands that contribute to the fundamental character of Idaho,” the draft said. “In the long run, what is best for Big Payette Lake and the drinking water source for the City of McCall will improve the value of all the endowment lands around McCall. We urge you to refrain from taking action involving Cougar Island that will compromise McCall’s drinking water and thereby devalue the other endowment lands that remain in your stewardship.”

Cougar Island zone 

Zoning was also discussed as a potential item to add to the letter. The island is currently zoned rural residential. That means one unit per ten acres can be built. Ultimately, City Attorney Bill Nichols told the city that even though they want to get this information out to potential buyers, there is “only so much you can do.”

“I can guarantee you that the state land board and its disclosures (have) plenty of disclaimers as well,” Nichols said. “And that basically tells the buyer ‘it’s on you to do your due diligence, and we make no representations whatsoever about why you can or can’t do with this property. It’s up to you to decide and to determine and to investigate and to inspect and to determine what you want to do… ‘ So, regardless of what you say or provide, or what the legality or illegality of something is, the landlord is simply going to provide factual information they have. They will let buyers make their own conclusions.”

Autum Robertson - BoiseDev Reporter
Autum Robertson - BoiseDev Reporter
Autum Robertson is a BoiseDev reporter focused on Meridian and McCall. Contact her at [email protected].

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