Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Struggle Bear pulls permit for ‘private recreational' structures

Staff Writer | August 5, 2022 1:00 AM

BONNERS FERRY — Through its attorney, Struggle Bear LLC has pulled its permit applications for six structures it has to build on Earl Lane Road property, saying that under Boundary County ordinances that the permits are not needed for “private recreational manner.”

As a result, the application will no longer go before Boundary County commissioners as previously scheduled.

On July 14, Boundary County P&Z received a letter sent by Attorney Norman Semanko from Parsons Behle & Latimer on behalf of Struggle Bear LLC. The county’s P&Z department is run by the consulting firm Ruen Yeager. Owen Benjamin Smith, a former comedian, owns Struggle Bear LLC and is known as Owen Benjamin on social media and his comedy career.

On June 23, the Boundary County Planning and Zoning Commission deferred a decision on Struggle Bear’s conditional use permit for existing additional primary single-family dwellings to county commissioners.

P&Z sent the application to county commissioners, saying they did not have enough guidance from the ordinance to take any action. Planning commissioners said they also were unsure if the application met the criteria for primary residences and were concerned the code was unclear on what constitutes a dwelling.

Semanko wrote Tessa Vogel, assistant land use planner at Ruen Yeager, in response to the violation cited to Struggle Bear LLC on Feb. 2. He said Vogel’s letter claims that certain uses on Struggle Bear property are “unauthorized and require one or more permits” from the county.

“Unfortunately, this stems from a misunderstanding of the uses on the [Struggle Bear] property and misreading of Boundary County Zoning Ordinance,” Semanko wrote. “As a result of your violation letter, [Struggle Bear] has applied to permits that are not required.”

He added that due to the size of the six “private recreational cabins” and their purpose, they do not fall within the definition of “residential” structure under Section 2.56 of Boundary County Zoning Ordinance.

Since the six cabins are not designed for habitation or occupancy, but for private enjoyment by the owner and invited guests for seasonal or transient recreation use, there are no lavatory nor kitchen facilities. Semanko argued further that there was no need for an application as a result.

“As a matter of law, the six cabins are not subject to regulation by Boundary County” due to section 15.2 of county ordinance that “private recreational uses” are unrestricted uses not regulated by the county in any zone district, Semanko wrote. He also cited Article 1, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution naming the inalienable rights of man, or in this case “acquiring, possession and protecting property.”

Ruen Yeager officials told the Bonners Ferry Herald that Boundary County P&Z Department and civil counsel are working currently on this issue moving forward.

At the June 23 P&Z meeting, many neighbors of Smith spoke out against the application and expressed concerns over Smith’s character and that of his social media followers.

Smith, drew controversy in 2020 when he livestreamed on his social media channels that he wanted to create a commercial space for his followers to gather, recreate and share homesteading skills.

Critics and neighbors contended Smith planned to create a paramilitary training ground for his followers or “bears” as they are known.

On the livestream, Smith said he wanted to build a place, which would be known as Beartaria, for like-minded people.

The application for the CUP garnered no comments in support or neutral comments to the project. Neighbors and nearby residents called on the planning board to reject the application, citing a lack of oversight into who would be invited to stay on the property. They also expressed concerns of future scenarios of Smith’s social media followers being on the property unsupervised and uninvited.

In a past live stream, Smith invited followers to donate money in order for him to buy property which they would then have access to.

However, at the June 23 P&Z meeting, Smith said this agreement with his followers was for a previous commercial property which he was unable to purchase. The Earl Lane property and added units are recreational use for family and friends only, he said.

Those who helped build the units, which were filmed as part of his “Building Beartaria” documentaries, were there for work parties, he said.

Other concerns cited by neighbors included added traffic volume that could damage pothole riddled roads even more. They also questioned why Smith needed four 144-square-foot cabins on the property if they are just for family and friends.

Additional concerns centered around how Smith would get water on his property without impeding traffic. On the east side of the parcel is Earl Lane, a natural gas line and the Moyie River. Smith said in the past he had collected water to the site through a temporary above-ground water pump system from the river. The system went over the gas line and across the road to fill up a water container.

Smith said neighbors’ concerns were unfounded, noting he has not been on the property in 10 months.

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