Battle lines are being drawn in Northern Idaho, where two sets of Priest Lake-area landowners are mired in fights with federal regulators that may result in sweeping changes to the Clean Water Act. While one case heads to the U.S. Supreme Court this winter, another is just heating up. Both are being seen by libertarians as key fronts in a general war on land-use regulation, and now Bonner County has a vehicle for stepping into the fray with its newly minted--and controversial--Property Rights Council.
Established by the Bonner County Board of Commissioners, the group will research and advise on a sweeping array of property-rights issues--potentially everything from minor land squabbles to complaints about state and federal agencies--but do so from a mandated libertarian point of view, a fact that is raising eyebrows across the state.
Just one of its inaugural causes and a good example of how wide the council is willing cast its net: The case of Jack and Jill.
When Jack and Jill Barron started clearing land and dumping fill on their property near Priest Lake, it was with the thought of building a home in the peaceful wilderness outside the small town of Nordman. Instead they got slapped with a compliance order from the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to regulators, the Barrons had placed rock and other fill into four acres of wetlands and stream channels near Lamb Creek--a tributary of Priest Lake--without getting the necessary permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
That was in 2009, and the couple has since gone to criminal court and been acquitted. They're still liable for the civil compliance order, however, which could cost them more than $32,000 per day if unmet.
It's a plight not unlike that of their more famous neighbors, Mike and Chantell Sackett, who were hit with an almost identical order for the same alleged offense near the exact same creek.
While the Sacketts' 2007 case has progressed to the U.S. Supreme Court and become a national cause celebre among libertarians--including Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul--the Barrons are looking to their local government for help.
Riding (maybe) to the rescue: the Bonner County Property Rights Council.
Support of Last Resort
According to Bonner County Commissioner Cornel Rasor, the Barrons' issue is a prime example of why the Property Rights Council was formed in the first place. Indeed, whether to get involved in the matter is one of only two items currently being considered by the seven-member advisory group--the other being a proposed county watershed ordinance.
"The Property Rights Council provides opportunities for the county to interpose to protect property owners from financial ruin from super-governmental agencies," Rasor told members of the Association of Bonner County Employees on Nov. 14. A request for a follow-up interview went unanswered. "[In the Barrons' case] essentially what you've got is a federal government agency that is going to destroy a family using what seems to be specious claims. ... If the county becomes the support of last resort, then this gives the county an opportunity to step in."
A lifelong Bonner County resident, Rasor serves as both chairman of the Bonner County Board of Commissioners and the Bonner County Republican Central Committee. If Northern Idaho is known for its strong libertarian streak, then Rasor is one of its leading lights.
Though only making news in the past month or so, the Property Rights Council is an idea that Rasor has been working on since his election in 2008 and a concept he's been talking about for the past 25 years.
According to an email sent to a constituent, and obtained through a public records request, Rasor put his goal simply: "I now see that we must use other ways to shrink government than simply surgery. I want to create the possibility that what is removed is permanent."
In its infancy, the advisory council is only now establishing its bylaws. Its exact scope and operations are in flux. From available documents, it is clear that the council has no policy powers and can only make recommendations to commissioners. Its primary role is research, and its stated goal is to find ways to unburden property owners from as much regulation, taxation or other impositions as legally and statutorily possible.
Much of the communications surrounding its formation are, according to Bonner County officials, protected by attorney-client and work privilege, but what is really raising some eyebrows is the group's overt allegiance to conservative libertarian political ideology--an ideology that Rasor unequivocally adheres to.
"I'm not good at lying, so I don't do it," he told county employees. "People know where I am with property. It's one of the three things that government is supposed to protect: life, freedom and property. And without it we don't have a free country."