Building may go but Ouimet’s dogs may not
So far, Jim Ouimet has been told to sit, stay, fetch, been scolded with “bad dog” once or twice and has all but been asked to play dead. After Tuesday’s Mono County Board of Supervisor’s meeting, however, he may not have to roll over. He and his sled dogs may not have to go, but the days appear to be numbered for the old Sheriff’s substation building that adjoins his sled dog facility.
He and the Mammoth Dog Teams (MDT) staff, along with a contingent of supporters from the general public turned out to review County staff’s recommendations of options regarding future use of the old Sheriff’s substation building off of U.S. 395 and near Hwy 203, just below Mammoth Lakes. MDT has been working alongside the building (and inside it on occasion) for the past several years, but the sled team operation’s five-year lease at the site ran out in November 2008.
By law, the property has to go out for bid every 10 years, though the Board has some leeway in regard to lease scenarios. Some, such as creating a situation that involves a lease for “cultural, residential or commercial use,” can get complicated and require numerous administrative steps, including public hearings.
Acquired by the County in 1961, originally as a jail, the building on the site served several functions, including use as office space, employee housing and storage, until being abandoned in 1993, mainly for health concerns.
According to County Public Works Director Evan Nikirk, whether the building is demolished or improved, it has numerous issues to address. Among other things, the water is non-potable, there are rat infestation problems (and Hantavirus transmission concerns), and materials containing lead and asbestos are both present that would have to be removed. Additionally, the sewage field, located on Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) land, also requires a new lease arrangement.
The County has storage needs for records and election equipment. The Sheriff’s Department has considered using some of the property for confiscated vehicle impound. The property has also been looked at for a variety of applications, such as housing. In any case, one certainty became apparent: the current building must go.
As a health and liability risk, Supervisor Vikki Bauer said getting rid of the building would solve most of her problems. Demolishing the building and putting in modular units on the site would cost the County roughly $400,000.
County Administrative Officer Dave Wilbrecht recommended tearing the building down and installing newer modular buildings on site. He said that if the County or any private business, be it Ouimet’s or anyone else, decides to use the existing building, numerous federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) code requirements would have to be met. He also laid out more than $100,000 in upgrades and fencing, not including what Ouimet’s already spent trying to spruce up the property.
The next question on the minds of many in the room: if the building has to go, does that mean Ouimet also has to go?
“If this doesn’t work out, we’re done,” he said.
Ouimet told the Board all he wants is to keep his sled team and museum operation going. If he can secure a lease on the property, Ouimet seemed confident he can muster the money and resources, and said he’s willing to do “whatever it takes.” He has looked for other sites near and far, and not found anything feasible. Ordinances are too restrictive, leases are too short (one year, for example) or EIR time-frames too long, he explained. Offers of temporary emergency housing sites have been made, but Ouimet said his needs are long-term.
Attorney Therese Hankel, representing Ouimet, submitted numerous pages of petitions signed by members of the public, as well as another 27 pages of petitions from outside Mono County. The petitions state support for Mammoth Dog Teams, calling the business a part of the area’s cultural heritage deserving of support. Hankel said her client is nothing but grateful to the County for its help in years past, which Ouimet has publicly acknowledged on the MDT website, http://www.mammothdogteams.com/. He has also, she pointed out, done major cleanup and made a significant amount of repairs at his own expense. He also pays $500 a month in rent and covers the property taxes.
Hankel also read parts of several letters sent to MDT over the years from many parts of the country and the world, applauding the Dog Teams, and the practical use of the facility to preserve a unique part of Mono County’s history. Of those, two were sent from current supervisors Byng Hunt and Vikki Bauer.
MDT’s staff have, according to Ouimet, discussed the possible demolition of the building and bringing in a some other kind of buildings, which he indicated could be a workable solution. Temporary housing for the dogs during demolition, he said, is a plan for which he’s already preparing.
Supervisor Hap Hazard said he thought MDT could be relocated to a triangular section on the backside of the property, freeing up the main part of the parcel where the dog teams and the outgoing building currently sit for other County uses, preferably something other than as a junkyard/storage lot.
“It may be doable. I’d have to walk it out and see if I can get everything back there,” Ouimet told The Sheet. One MDT associate said he didn’t think the idea of affordable housing was a good one, citing the lack of proper water, sewer and electric on the property, but in any case agreed, sure, demolish the building and put in some modular building … just leave Ouimet there.
Steve Searles said he agreed with supervisors. “We need to look at what needs to be done,” he said, and asked the Board to redirect staff to work out a plan that keeps Ouimet on the property.
For now, a 90- to 120-day notice of lease termination will be issued that will allow Ouimet to finish out his current season. A new short-term lease will be drawn up for bidding and in the meantime, the Board stressed that the termination declaration is a necessary formality, but doesn’t necessarily constitute an eviction. Supervisor Tom Farnetti said he would look “favorably” on a bid from Ouimet, given his history, a position that Bauer echoed.
Another issue brought up as a discussion item was how the dogs are tethered on the property. Mono County Animal Control Director Nancy Boardman is reportedly working with Mammoth Dog Teams, evaluating MDT’s practices and how or if they conflict with State and Mono County regulations.
Hankel pointed out a state regulation, which allows Animal Control to exercise its discretion when it comes to permitting tethering, which she indicated is a standard practice when it comes to sled dogs. She went on to add that dogs with vigorous work or exercise schedules, such as working sled dogs, were not part of the intent of the original tethering law. Backing that up, she cited a comment by one lawmaker who said the only reason sled dogs weren’t exempted is because the State wasn’t aware there were any at the time the law’s language was drafted.
Photo taken at the Mammoth Dog Teams kennel on Thursday.