HAYDEN — Generations of North Idahoans know the thrill of holding a shotgun, stock tucked into their shoulder as they raise the barrel, squeeze the trigger and shoot a clay target flying away like a pigeon or grouse.
And for decades, they’ve done it at Coeur d’Alene Skeet and Trap Club, a range near the Coeur d’Alene Airport in Hayden. A small nonprofit incorporated in 1946 at Hayden Lake, the club moved to its location on Miles Avenue in 1965.
Now a debate over the club’s annual rent could force it to close permanently.
“We have to keep the club,” said Ed Wagner, Coeur d’Alene Skeet and Trap Club President. “It’s a good community service. We’ve got new people coming all the time and they leave with smiles on their faces. The whole point of the club is to provide that.”
In late October, the Federal Aviation Administration notified the Coeur d’Alene Airport, the club’s landlord, of an informal complaint filed anonymously.
The complaint alleges that Kootenai County, which owns and operates the airport, has violated its federal grant assurances by allowing the Coeur d’Alene Skeet and Trap Club to operate with land rent that is significantly under market value.
When airport owners, sponsors or other organizations accept funds from FAA-administered financial assistance programs, they must agree to certain obligations, called assurances.
Under its current lease with the airport, which is up for renewal in April, the club pays $1,057 a year to rent 36 acres of land. The complaint contends that the club’s lease violates grant assurances 5, 22, 24 and 25.
The lease has been a matter of contention since 2021.
Airport Director Steven Kjergaard told commissioners last April that the club should move toward paying market rate to rent the land. He also indicated that the club would have a negative impact on the sale of other parcels.
“I want this airport out of leasing property that doesn’t align with the airport’s goals — running an airport,” he said.
The airport’s non-aeronautical lease rate is 0.567 cents per square foot per year. That means the market rate for the land should be a little more than $889,000.
However, the soil is contaminated from lead and toxic materials in clay targets that were commonly used in the past. Kjergaard said that cuts the land’s value in half. He estimated that market rate for the land would be more than $400,000 per year.
Rental rates for a new lease proposed by the airport in January 2022 would begin at $120,000 per year and increase by $40,000 each year for a decade, topping out at $480,000.
Wagner said it’s impossible to pay those rates. The club is barely making it as it is, especially with the rising costs of targets and other materials.
“We’ve had to raise our range fees and we’re going to have to raise our membership dues,” he said. “We don’t want to make a huge profit because that means our members are paying too much.”
The club doesn’t have the money to move, either.
“If somebody gave us a property, we still couldn’t afford to develop it and get another range up and running,” he said.
It’s unclear how the complaint to the FAA will ultimately affect the club and the airport.
“There are significant things that can come as a result,” Kjergaard said.
In a worst-case scenario, he said, the FAA can reduce or remove all grant funding to the airport for six years as a penalty for violating grant assurances.
Generally, Kjergaard said, the way to resolve a violation with a submarket lease is to bring the lease up to market rate.
“The FAA likes to see progress forward,” he said. “It doesn’t have to automatically go there. But it has to move in that direction.”
The airport must respond to the allegations by Nov. 28.
Many who frequent the Coeur d’Alene Skeet and Trap Club are retirees.
“There’s a lot of gray hair,” said Mike Zaidlicz. He’s one of a group of retirees who gather at the club four times a week — every day it’s open.
But sport shooting is a young person’s game, too. Close to 40 youths on local teams practice at the club.
Among them is 15-year-old Caleb Mejie, a member of the Coeur d’Alene High School skeet and trap team. For him, shooting is both meditative and fun.
“It’s a way to get your mind off everything else,” he said.
His sister, 13-year-old Hailey, went shooting with her dad and brother for the first time Friday. Each time she broke a clay target, she beamed.
“If we were shooting birds, we wouldn’t go hungry,” her dad, Nick, said with a laugh. He’s been shooting since the late ’90s and now shares the pastime with his kids. “She’s hit a few.”
The Coeur d’Alene High School team is one of three local youth teams that practice at the club. There are no other facilities within a reasonable distance that the teams could use.
“Without it, our sport would be pretty much impossible,” said Landon Lacaria, a 16-year-old member of the CHS team.
Whatever the opinions of the airport director or the FAA, Kootenai County commissioners will have the final say in the club’s lease.
“They’ve really gotten a break for a long, long, long time,” said Commissioner Bill Brooks. “When you get very technical about it, you’re not supposed to be giving certain people breaks on their rent.”
Make no mistake, Brooks said — he’s not anti-gun. In fact, he was one of the top 30 skeet instructors in the world, until his health deteriorated to the point that he could no longer shoot.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said. “It’s like playing chess. Shooting skeet is about 98% mental.”
Brooks was a member of the Coeur d’Alene Skeet and Trap Club for years. He says he spent more time shooting there than most.
“I am very pro skeet club,” he said. “But at the same time, the people of the skeet club have to be realistic.”
When it comes to the issue of rent, there are two camps: those who believe it’s unfair for the county to effectively subsidize a private club and those who believe it’s appropriate due to the club’s nonprofit status and long history.
“An argument can be made both ways,” Brooks said. “But honestly, the best solution is that they find another home and we give them plenty of time to do it. In the meantime, they pay a rate closer to market value, even if it’s over 10 years.”
He believes the club has been resistant to the idea of any increases or changes, which makes it hard to hammer out a compromise.
“I’m very sympathetic, but you’ve got to have two sides who are willing to find a solution,” he said. “The solution is not the skeet club putting its hand in the pocket of the county.”
Commissioner Leslie Duncan believes the club benefits the community. The club endorsed her candidacy when she successfully ran for reelection this year.
She said it’s troubling that the FAA complaint is anonymous.
“The land housing the club has never been used for aeronautical purposes and I am not sure how it became under the purview of the airport in the first place,” Duncan said. “It has been a great neighbor to the airport for all these years.”
She indicated to The Press that she has a plan that could save the club, but it needs legal review before it can be presented to other commissioners.
For now, Duncan’s plan remains under wraps.
Though the board has appeared divided on the matter, the balance may shift with the election of a new commissioner.
The Coeur d’Alene Skeet and Trap Club also endorsed Bruce Mattare in the District 2 commissioner race. Mattare ran unopposed in the general election and is poised to join the board in January.
“Why would a mystery person file a complaint about the lease rate on land covered with lead shot?” Mattare told The Press via email. “The complaint is suspect because any reasonable person would know the only way the county could maybe charge more is if it spent potentially millions in environmental remediation removing the lead.”
The club is responsible for environmental cleanup under the current lease. Wagner said remediating the ground would cost between $2 million and $3 million — funds the club simply doesn’t have and never will.
Locals aren’t the only ones who make use of the club. People travel from all across the region to shoot there, including Gene Lombardo. He makes the drive from Moscow twice a week, a nearly 200-mile round trip.
“It’s the only place to shoot skeet,” he said Friday, after coming out of the cold and back into the warmth of the clubhouse. Then he grinned. “And these guys are all older than me, so they make me feel younger.”
Others come from Spokane and even farther afield.
Zaidlicz said he chose to move from Alaska to North Idaho upon his retirement in 2008 largely because of his passion for shooting.
“I looked all over the west for where I wanted to retire,” he said. “I chose here because of this place.”
Over the decades, thousands of shooters have come through the Coeur d’Alene Skeet and Trap Club.
Zaidlicz said the club makes the sport accessible to people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds — folks who won’t be able to participate any longer or pass the love of sport shooting on in their families if the club closes.
“This is one of the remnants of the traditional, venerable activities,” he said.