KINGMAN - A Golden Valley couple's dogfight with the county over a kennel has escalated to the federal level. Jason and Tai Barnes filed a civil rights lawsuit against the county, County Attorney Matt Smith, County Deputy Civil Attorney Dolores Milkie and Mohave County Superior Court Judge Lee Jantzen in U.S. District Court in Phoenix on June 2.
According to the lawsuit, the Barnes contend that county employees violated the federal Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) when they collaborated to deny the couple a zoning use and health permit for a kennel. The Barnes also claim that county employees trespassed on their property to take photos without their permission, violating their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures; violated their Fifth Amendment right to due process; their First Amendment rights by denying their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on their own property; and their Seventh Amendment right to a trial by jury when the county sued them in court for operating without a permit.
Because the case is ongoing, county employees are not allowed to speak about the case, Milkie said.
The Barnes moved to Golden Valley from Michigan in 2008. Their original plan was to have a few kennels and a grooming station in their garage to take care of, show and breed their four registered boxers, Tai Barnes said.
The family submitted a site plan and all the required paperwork to the county Planning and Zoning Department for the garage, she said. In September 2008, the building was approved and the family started construction.
The trouble started in October 2008 when the Barnes were notified that they were in violation for operating a kennel. The county Planning and Zoning and Environmental Health departments had received a complaint that the couple was running a kennel, advertising boarding and grooming services and the breeding and sale of boxer puppies as Sundance Kennels online.
According to Barnes, the couple advertised their show dogs online well before they moved to Golden Valley. They never advertised any grooming or boarding services, she said.
Most owners of show dogs refer to themselves as kennels, Barnes said, because it gives other show dog owners and dog show judges a concrete name to attach to a dog.
The couple was planning to breed their dogs, Barnes said, but they were not planning to open a boarding and grooming facility.
The grooming station and kennels in their garage were only going to be used to keep their dogs in show condition, she said.
According to current county health ordinances, anyone who sells puppies is entering into a commercial business, said Milkie. It makes no difference whether a person plans on breeding dogs as a business or not, if a resident's dog has just one litter of puppies and sells the puppies for a profit, they must have a permit, she said.
However, residents do not need a commercial kennel permit if they give away the puppies for free before the dogs are 4 months old, Milkie said.
The county is currently working on revising the health code ordinances for animals, she said. They are looking at the possibility of allowing residents to sell a set number of litters of puppies a year without needing a permit.
The Barnes attempted to straighten things out by filing for a kennel zoning use permit with the Planning and Zoning Department and a commercial kennel health permit from the Health Department.
But neither department would approve a permit until the garage met specific health code standards for a dog kennel, boarding and grooming facility, Barnes said. The Barnes had to have specially sloped floors, drains, paint, walls, ventilation and a commercial septic system installed.
Things were starting to add up, and inspectors from both departments seemed to keep finding things the couple needed to fix or add, Barnes said.
P&Z says yes, BOS says no
Finally, Planning and Zoning approved the building in September 2008. But the Board of Supervisors denied the Barnes' request for a kennel zoning use permit in April 2009 because they were operating as a dog kennel without a health permit, Barnes said.
"We hustled and bustled those last three weeks before the meeting and we were red-tagged (a notice of violation from either the Health or Planning and Zoning departments) each week," she said. "It's been a constant battle. It's not like they came down here and caught us in the middle of operating a kennel without a permit. They forced us into doing this (revamping the garage to meet health and building code standards.)"
County contends kennel built first
The county takes the opposite view of things, according to Milkie.
"As I understand it, they built the kennel and then tried to get the permits," she said.
Residents who have more than four dogs and want to breed, sell, board or groom dogs must have a zoning use permit and a commercial kennel permit from the Health Department before they start any activity, Milkie said. The Barnes started their activity before the zoning use permit was approved, she said.
Milkie acknowledged that the commercial permits and the facilities behind them are not cheap, but "we have a process for a reason. We don't want to create a health hazard for people or animals," she said.
Barnes estimates that it has cost the family more than $200,000 with the medical costs of the litter of puppies one of her dogs has had and the alterations the couple has had to make to turn their garage into a kennel.
And the costs continue to rise. In March, the county filed for and was granted an injunction against the Barnes to prevent them from boarding, grooming or breeding any dogs, other than their own. The injunction also prevents the Barnes from advertising as a boarding and grooming facility and prevents them from selling any puppies.
The Barnes have also been ordered to take down their Web site and pay more than $5,000 in fines.
Not being able to sell the puppies has put a stain on the Barnes' name as the owners of championship boxers, Tai Barnes said. Breeders, dog handlers and show dog owners keep asking them why they can't sell the puppies they have. The Barnes have to keep telling the same story, she said, but it still leaves people wondering what they did wrong.
The constant adding of requirements and fines aren't the only things that have them riled, Barnes said. It's that the county appears to have a double standard when it comes to properties that have requested kennel permits. Some haven't been required to meet the same standards or have received help to meet the same standards as the Barnes, she said.
There is at least one other property in Golden Valley, she said, that the Planning and Zoning and Health departments have been actively working on to meet the requirements of a kennel permit. The property does not have the required 2.5 acres and has a few ramshackle doghouses for about 10 or more dogs, she said. The county hasn't forced the owner to put in special drains or a septic system, she said.
"Until they can treat everyone the same, then no one should be issued permits," Barnes concluded.