Lease increase may doom Girl Scout camp

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Camp Westana, located north of Whitefish, has hosted Scout camps for nearly 50 years.

The future of a longstanding Girl Scout camp north of Whitefish is in jeopardy after the state recently notified scout leaders of a five-fold cost increase in the camp’s annual lease payment.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation sent a letter to Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming, putting the group on notice that the rental lease for Camp Westana on Lower Stillwater Lake will increase from $5,000 to $25,000 a year.

The state based its increase on a current assessment that determined the value of the camp property — 7.2 acres and 300 feet of lake frontage — is about $500,000.

The sizable increase is driven by the state agency’s mandate to capture full market value from all of its leases on school trust property. The Kidsports complex on school trust land near Kalispell is facing the same dilemma and is working toward acquiring a permanent easement.

Stefanie Harrington, property director for the bi-state Girl Scout organization, called the rate increase “alarming and disheartening” in a letter sent to area troops.

Locally, Girl Scout leaders are devastated by the news.

“My heart is breaking,” said Autumn Santa, the leader of a Junior Girl Scout troop affiliated with St. Matthew’s School in Kalispell. “It’s like a big bomb has been dropped on us.”

Santa, who attended Camp Westana as a girl, said she and other leaders are willing to do whatever they can to help save Camp Westana.

A group of Columbia Falls-area Girl Scout leaders started a Facebook campaign called “Save Westana Camp,” and note on the Facebook page they’re “seeking information, ideas, insights and interest.”

Community meetings are in the works, tentatively set for April 24 in Whitefish and April 25 in Columbia Falls. The public can keep informed about the local effort at http://www.facebook.com/SaveWestana.

Located 17 miles north of Whitefish, Camp Westana has been used for 50 years for overnight camps year-round to allow Scouts to experience a traditional camp setting and learn skills such as canoeing, hiking, cooking and crafts.

The Girl Scouts first leased the camp property from the state in 1962 for $50 a year. The facility has been renovated and upgraded through the years. According to the vintagegirlscout.com website that details Girl Scout history in Montana, Camp Westana was expanded and extensively remodeled in 1972.

The state granted a one-year extension for the new lease after the Girl Scout council explained how much of a hardship the $25,000 annual fee would be.

Mike Sullivan, DNRC property management section supervisor, said the state agency met with the Girl Scouts council late last year to explain the lease increase and talk about options. The $500,000 property value is based on a state Department of Revenue appraisal, he said. Leases generally are set up with five-year review clauses.

It’s possible for the Girl Scouts to have a private, independent appraisal done, Sullivan said. Lease prices are based on a percentage of the appraised value.

Harrington said the Girl Scout property committee and board of directors have reviewed the impact of the annual rental-lease payment and determined the increase is cost-prohibitive.

The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has outlined four options for Camp Westana:

• Terminate the lease and remove all improvements, including buildings and equipment, from the site.

• Implement a land exchange with the state for a similar lakefront property of similar value.

• Purchase a permanent easement. Under current state law, however, the nonprofit Girl Scout organization doesn’t qualify as an entity able to purchase such an easement. “The council would have to identify a qualifying public entity able to purchase a permanent easement,” Harrington said.

In the Kidsports case, the city of Kalispell is the qualifying public entity.

Sullivan said Flathead County would be the logical option for a public entity to take the lead, but an agency such as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks “hypothetically” could get involved if it chose to consider the site as parkland.

• Sell the lease to another individual or entity. Sullivan said the Girl Scouts may be able to find another group as a partner and split the lease cost.

Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming is reaching out to scouting troops statewide to get feedback about the lease issue, and plans to sponsor a town hall meeting later this spring. Comments may be emailed to lrpp@gsmw.org.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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