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Chippewa National Forest cabin owners seek fee relief

Enormous annual fee increases - sometimes of several hundred percent - have motivated cabin owners with leases on national forest land to begin legal proceedings against the U.S. Forest Service.

In 1915, the U.S. Forest Service established the Recreational Residence Program to allow families to build cabins on government-owned land, such as the 286 cabins in the Chippewa National Forest.

The Forest Service put restrictions on the permit holders, such as the color they can paint their cabins and how big the buildings can be. The cabins also must be only part-time residences. In exchange for their getaways in the wilderness, the cabin owners pay an annual fee for the use of the Forest Service land.

Until recently, the fees were relatively modest. For example, in the mid-1950s, Ted Gillett of Bemidji and his wife, Ardis, bought a cabin on North Star Lake north of Grand Rapids in the Chippewa National Forest.

"The first year we got it, the fee was $45," said Gillett.

In 2000, Congress passed the Cabin User Fee Fairness Act to ensure land permit fees would remain affordable at 5 percent of the value of the unimproved land. But since then, the Forest Service has reappraised the lots, using as comparisons privately owned, improved cabin lots not subject to restrictions.

The result for some of the cabin owners, most of whom have used their cabins and paid their leases for several generations, is a jump in fees they can't afford.

For example, Jean Kelley's fees for a cabin lot on Pike Bay went from $1,970 to $6,300 per year. Gillett said their fee went up to close to $5,000 per year.

Kelley and the Gilletts have signed on with the Minneapolis law firm of Eckland & Blando to appeal the increases. Jeff Eckland said they have started seeking administrative remedies and, eventually, relief in a potential lawsuit against the Forest Service in federal court.

Eckland said the issue came to his attention through Dave Laidig, an associate in his law firm whose family owns a cabin on Forest Service land in Inyo National Forest in California.

Eckland said his firm specializes in property litigation.

"We sue government agencies for a living," he said in a telephone interview Thursday.

He said he believes a judge will find in favor of the cabin owners and require the Forest Service to take into consideration the restrictions placed on the land use to downgrade the value of the land and make the annual fees affordable.

Eckland said he is also working with appraisers who can come up with a discount rate the Forest Service would have to follow in adjusting the fees. He said he is also planning to develop a national database of comparable sales for every national forest in the United States.

Cabin permit holders who join the suit would be awarded the relief, assuming a judge finds in favor of the plaintiffs, Eckland said. Cabin owners who don't come on board would not experience the relief.

"You do not get relief unless you do something," he said.

Eckland said the per-plaintiff fee to join the suit requires a $3,500 retainer with $1,500 reimbursed if not needed. However, he estimated that if a single cabin owner brought such a suit, it would cost the individual half a million dollars. Sharing the costs is more affordable to each cabin owner, he said.

John Murray and his wife, Verda, have a cabin on Star Island in Cass Lake. Verda Murray has vacationed there since 1937, and her parents bought a half share in a cabin on Star Island in 1940.

John Murray was a member of the National Forest Homeowners Board of Directors from 2004-2008. He said they would not join the lawsuit partly because of family considerations. Although they transferred their permit to their son's name some years ago, he said he doesn't place as high a priority in maintaining the cabin as do some other families. In addition, he said, their fee increase went from $1,100 to $2,150, which they can still afford.

Murray said he agrees that the fee system should be fixed either by a lawsuit or by changing the law through congressional action.

"I don't believe either is assured," he said. "I think there are problems with both. I'm leaning on the side of congressional action as more likely to be more successful."

Besides, he said, seeking congressional action doesn't cost a lawyer's fee.

Murray is a National Forest Homeowners ambassador assigned to solicit new members and find 10 permit holders to work with Minnesota's senators and members of Congress to sponsor a bill to change the fee system and maintain the intent of Congress to keep cabins as an appropriate use of nation forest land.

Gillett said he and his wife have also signed over their permit to their daughter's family, although the Gilletts maintain the cabin and pay the permit fees.

Eckland said he estimates the lawsuit will take two to four years to reach a judgment requiring the Forest Service to follow the existing law and properly implement the intent of Congress.

"I hope I'm still here to see what happens," Gillett said.