Outdoors/Adventure

Lawsuit seeking to shut down Nome sled dog kennel dismissed

Putting an end to a case with potential statewide consequences, two Nome residents last week dropped a lawsuit they filed last year aimed at shutting down a sled dog kennel that moved in 400 feet away.

Plaintiffs Kevin Bopp and his wife, Lynn DeFilippo, hoped to close the 30-dog Arctic Sky Kennel operated by Iditarod veteran Nils Hahn and his wife, Diana Haecker. They sought a judge's injunction to remove the dogs that created what their court filings described as "unbearable noise and odor problems."

A jury trial to determine damages was scheduled to begin June 1 at the courthouse in Nome, the historic heart of the state's mushing past that marks the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

But Bopp and DeFilippo suffered a setback on April 30 when Kotzebue Superior Court Judge Paul A. Roetman denied the injunction.

The dog noise was substantially lower when the window was closed, Roetman found. And the smell in the "exceptionally clean" kennel was limited to warm summer days.

Following that decision, the couple filed a stipulation to dismiss the suit against Hahn and Haecker on May 12. The parties signed a settlement agreement and both sides will pay their own attorney fees and other costs.

The Nome lawsuit reflects a statewide dilemma: As more people move into outlying parts of Alaska to escape more settled places, conflicts with mushers are on the rise. The dismissal is good news for Hahn and Haecker but also for mushers around the state, said Myron Angstman, their Bethel-based lawyer and an Iditarod veteran himself.

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Haecker and Hahn offered to buy Bopp's property as part of the settlement, Angstman said.

"We did not want to continue to live next to these folks so we have made an offer to purchase the land and they get to move the buildings," he said.

Christopher Cromer, the attorney representing Bopp and DeFilippo, declined to comment on Wednesday.

Another lawsuit Bopp filed in 2012 -- it was also dismissed -- prompted Hahn and Haecker to draft Alaska's "right to mush" resolution signed last year by former Gov. Sean Parnell. The mushing resolution in turn inspired the state's first municipal sled dog ordinance in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, home to mushing celebrities like Dallas Seavey, Martin Buser and DeeDee Jonrowe.

The Nome lawsuit wasn't the first to center on troubles with sled dogs next door. Neighbors of Dan and Mitch Seavey in Seward filed a nuisance lawsuit against the renowned mushing family and its IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours business in the 1990s. A judge denied the injunction the neighbors sought, a decision eventually upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court.

But the Bopp lawsuit played out in a rougher setting: a small subdivision on the tundra six miles from Nome, an unincorporated area outside city limits and city laws governing animal noise. A summer gold mine operates nearby and residents contend with the usual frontier mix of loose dogs and shooting.

Hahn and Haecker lived in Nome for years before uprooting for Talkeetna. They returned in 2012 and set up a dog lot on a piece of property next to one they formerly owned. Bopp moved to the subdivision in 2008 during the period the mushers were gone.

Bopp's lawsuit contended the Arctic Sky dog-yard's noise and odor violated "his fundamental right to quiet enjoyment of his property," according to the injunction motion he filed last year.

The dogs next door routinely began loud barking before 6 a.m. and also kept him and his wife up at night, according to Bopp's injunction petition. The "odor from urine often extends" on his property, Bopp said in an affidavit.

The affidavit also described a history of "aggressive, hostile and threatening behavior" from Hahn, including yelling, running past with loose dogs and obscene gestures. A judge last year rejected a long-term protective order Bopp requested, however, saying Bopp's "conduct is frankly more alarming than Mr. Hahn's," according to a transcript provided by Haecker.

Hahn and Haecker responded in court filings that their dog-yard was clean and the huskies barked sporadically only when excited, during feeding or getting hitched up for a run.

Haecker and Hahn called Bopp the real troublemaker, describing shots fired and, more recently, loud booms from what court documents describe as a mortar gun fired while Bopp blew a whistle to get the dogs even more worked up. At one point, a shot spooked a horse that knocked down Haecker, according to a motion the defendants filed last year. He also drummed on a metal barrel with a piece of steel at 5 a.m. The unpredictable racket left the sled dogs acting with "a mixture of being afraid and of being extremely on guard," Haecker said in an interview earlier this month.

"I would like to emphasize it's a one-sided war," Haecker said. "We're basically accused of having a dog team and that is in this guy's mind apparently a crime, but they have engaged in all these things."

Haecker said she and Hahn are working with state legislators to see about a statewide version of the Mat-Su ordinance, which defines sled dogs as livestock and loosens noise restrictions while requiring new husbandry standards.

"I don't want to get too cosmic on it but maybe we have to fight someone to make it better for everyone," she said.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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