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Right to mush? Nome neighbors take argument over kennel noise and odor to court

  • Author: Matthew KNOM
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 8, 2015

A disagreement between neighbors living several miles outside Nome city limits is set to go to trial on June 1 over a dispute that centers on what's acceptable when it comes to noise -- and smell -- from a dog kennel.

The disagreement goes back to 2012, but came to a head in the Nome court in January. That's when the neighbors -- Kevin Bopp and his wife Lynn DeFilippo -- squared off against the mushers -- Nils Hahn and his wife and mushing partner Diana Haecker.

Bopp and his wife were asking a judge for an injunction: to put a stop to the noise and smell while awaiting trial by removing the dogs from the property.

In the back-and-forth between neighbors, Bopp and his wife say the sound and stench of living next to a dog lot has made life unlivable. And Bopp says the mushers who own the dogs should make it right.

"I can't sleep in my home any more. My home's not a place of retreat anymore," Bopp said Monday. "I'd like to live in my home similar to how it was before the dogs moved in, and it was a peaceful quiet place, and I can't even come close to that."

But musher Hahn says he and his wife are guilty of nothing more than raising a dog team in rural Alaska.

"We're about four miles outside of the city limits of Nome, and if [dog kennels] are allowed … in town, I think they should be allowed in rural Alaska, in an un-zoned, unregulated area," Hahn stressed. "If we can't have dogs out there, you can't have dogs anywhere."

Both sides allege bullying, as well as un-neighborly and even aggressive behavior, from the other. Compounding the issue is a question of "who was there first." Documents submitted to the court show neighbors Bopp and DeFilippo bought their land in 2004, but didn't build their house until 2008. Mushers Hahn and Haecker lived with their dog team on a different plot of land during that same time period -- moving out in 2008 shortly before Bopp and his wife moved into their home. They weren't neighbors -- until the mushers moved back into the adjoining lot in 2012 with their kennel of about 30 dogs.

That's when the "discomfort and annoyance" with the dog noise and odor began, Bopp says. Hahn says the mushers responded to initial complaints by adjusting their training schedule and feed times -- but Bopp says it didn't stop the noise or the smell. For Hahn and Haecker, the continuing clash was enough to motivate them to lead the effort to declare Alaska a "right to mush" state -- a symbolic resolution signed by former Gov. Sean Parnell last year that signals the state's support for mushing and related activities.

In January the lawyer of mushers Hahn and Haecker -- Bethel attorney Myron Angstman, himself a musher with two Iditarod runs and a pair of Kuskokwim 300 championships under his belt -- argued in the Nome court his clients have a fundamental right to keep dogs in rural Alaska.

"If there is a precedent established that outside Nome, seven miles, you can't have a well-run kennel because your neighbors don't like it, that would be a significant new step in the state of Alaska where mushing is very, very much valued," Angstman said.

"Being able to say you can't mush in certain places, and this is rural Alaska. If you can't mush in rural Alaska, where else can't you mush?"

Emphasizing that point were witnesses called during the January hearing, including Iditarod mushers Joe Garnie and Aaron Burmeister. Both testified the dogs Hahn and Haecker keep make "a typical amount of noise for a dog sled team," and both spoke to the importance of mushing in rural Alaska.

But Jon Wiederholt, the lawyer for neighbors Bopp and DeFilippo, said the case has nothing to do with mushing. He told the court it's simply about the noise and odor from the kennel.

"It's never been an indictment of mushing or dog sledding or people who own those sorts of things, and it isn't specifically a condemnation of the Hahns," Weiderholt said. "It's just [my clients'] right to be able to enjoy the property that they originally had."

Lawyers for both sides point to a similar case from the mid-1990s involving renowned mushers Dan and Mitch Seavey and the family's Ididaride Sled Dog Tours. Speaking for the family business, Danny Seavey -- son of Mitch, grandson of Dan and brother of Dallas -- said that case spent over a decade in court and soured long-standing friendships, but didn't set any clear precedent for where a musher's right to a kennel ends and a neighbor's right to peace and quiet begins.

"The jury found us a nuisance, and declined to issue any damages," Seavey said from the family business in Seward, estimating the damages to be "less than $5,000."

"Then the judge did not issue an injunction," he said. "We didn't have to stop, but we were a nuisance. And there was no definition as to, now what?"

In late April, Kotzebue judge Paul Roteman handed down his decision from the January hearing, ruling against an injunction: The dogs could stay where they are, for now. Using the City of Nome's own ordinances for excessive dog noise as a guide, Judge Roteman ruled the noise made by the mushers' dogs would be acceptable within city limits. Therefore, Rotemen wrote, they would be acceptable to a "reasonable person in an un-zoned rural community."

That means the next step for the dispute is a jury trial for a permanent injunction to remove the dogs and decide the case for good, set to begin in Nome June 1.

This article originally appeared on KNOM Radio Mission, a Nome-based radio station sharing stories from around Western Alaska. It is republished here with permission.?