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Need for Struggle Bear conditional use permit questioned

 
August 2, 2022

Owen Benjamin on Moyie River property.
A Boise attorney has written Boundary County Planning and Zoning on behalf of Struggle Bear LLC and owner Owen Benjamin, citing a misunderstanding of the use proposed on a ten acre parcel on Earl Lane Road, a misreading of the county zoning ordinance and a contention that no permits are required for the six dry guest cabins that were built on the parcel.

"The SB (Struggle Bear) cabins are not designed for habitation or occupancy as residential structures and have not been used or intended for such purposes," attorney Norman Semanko wrote. "They do not have lavatory and kitchen facilities. Rather, the cabins are intended primarily for private enjoyment by the owner and invited guests for seasonal or transient recreational use to support activities such as vacationing, hunting and river access, and also function as improved campsites. There is no commercial use. The Staff Report which you prepared regarding the conditional use permit application confirms that the structures are “to be used in a private recreational manner.”

Ordinance section 2.55.1, private recreational, states, "A recreational use developed for the private enjoyment of an individual property owner and invited guests. Private recreational use may include but is not limited to; vacation, lake, river, hunting or ski cabins, recreational vehicle pads, and improved campsites," and section 15.2.3 establishes that "Private recreational uses, such as camping, hunting and fishing, parking and operation of recreational vehicles, motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles, etc.," are unrestricted uses not regulated by Boundary County in any zone district."

Issues were raised by several property owners in the area at a meeting with county commissioners May 25, 2021, after communications with planning and zoning went unanswered. They were concerned by blogs and podcasts by Owen Benjamin, a former actor and Hollywood comic, that referenced the property as "Beartaria" or "Ursa Rio" and offering access to "EVERYONE who contributed $400 (or any amount)." As many as 700 of his "bears," or followers, are believed to have contributed, and several came to the property over the past two years to help build the cabins. (See "Beartaria video indicates P&Z violation.")

There are indications that there were contributors.

“Thank you for writing the article exposing Owen Benjamin’s cult compound in Idaho,” Scott wrote KVT in an email. “I originally thought he was curating a place for sharing ideas about homesteading, living off the grid, etc. and was interested in the nuts and bolts aspect of them. It only took a day or two to realize that was far from the case. He peddles hate, conspiracies, racism, doomsday scenarios but above all is running a grift where people send thousands of dollars to him on a monthly basis.”

"Owen Benjamin Smith committed fraud and is a compulsive liar for his own gain," Liz Moldovvan wrote in a recent letter to the editor. "I have been advised to sue him for slander and defamation and for cyberfraud, but up until now have been hesitant as I live in Australia. He has called me a crazy criminal and spent 20 minutes on one of his live-streams trying to humiliate me and lying about me over 40 times to his audience for the sake of making an example of me so that no more of his followers would ask for a refund of the $400 plus they sent him for the promised campgrounds."

At public hearing on a conditional use permit application June 23, project designer Brian Domke asserted that the use would be private, for family and friends only, and Benjamin said that all his crowd funding efforts were not for the Moyie River property, but a much larger property he had hoped to buy in Bonner County, despite the fact that at least one post clearly references 775 Earl Lane Road as the site for "his new Ruby Ridge-style compound" and many of his more recent posts clearly reference the site as well.

While not the typical business model, accepting funds through crowd funding in exchange for access to the property would elevate the land use from private recreational to recreational hospitality, defined as "uses established specifically to afford the general public access, accommodations and/or services by which the public may enjoy recreational opportunities on private land. Hospitality uses may include but are not limited to RV parks, motels, hotels or lodges, bed and breakfast establishments and inns."

With six cabins built, that elevates the use from unrestricted to high occupancy, which, in the agriculture/forestry zone district, requires a conditional use permit. Had they stopped at five, the use would be classed as moderate, with a conditional use permit required only if any part of the development was within 500 feet of an existing residence.

At the conclusion of the June 23 public hearing, the planning and zoning commission moved to defer decision authority on the application to county commissioners, but in the wake of Semanko's July 14 letter, action on the application has ceased.

"At this time, the Struggle Bear file will not be going before the BOCC as the applicants have withdrawn their application," planner Tess Vogel wrote. "The P&Z Department and civil counsel are now determining the next steps."

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Mike Weland, Publisher
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