County red tag spurs 'Pottygate' in Mi-Wuk Village
SOMETIMES COLUMNS just drop from heaven.
Just when you think the reservoir of local idiocy has dried up, something happens that renews your lack of faith in humanity.
This particular lowdown trick comes just in time for Halloween: Tuolumne County filed a violation notice and is threatening to shut down the cleanest, cutest and most appreciated outhouse on all of Highway 108. It has red-tagged the "five-star comfort station" next to the Mi-Wuk Village General Store, spurring a high-country petition campaign to save it.
First I figured someone over at Code Compliance thought my material had been a little thin of late and was throwing me a journalistic bone. Then I learned that Enforcement Officer Mandy Young was dead serious.
"It was built without a permit," Young said of Mi-Wuk's little loo. "And it's not ADA compliant."
Her notice gave owner Roger Johnson until today to fix the problems or "demolish" the restroom.
JOHNSON HASN'T fixed them. And he won't.
Instead, he's trying common sense on the county bureaucrats, which might be like trying Swahili on Eskimos.
He's driven up and down Highway 108 taking snapshots of the only alternatives to his plumbed, solar-lit, fully flushable powder room: stinking, flyblown, graffiti-tagged rent-a-johns.
"I'd like that Mandy Young to spend even a minute inside one of those porta-potties and come out telling me she likes it better than mine," said the 77-year-old Johnson.
Young, somehow resisting the challenge, counters that she's just doing her job.
In Tuolumne County, code enforcement is "complaint driven," meaning zoning cops only spring into action if someone gripes.
"In this case, we had a complaint," said Young. "So we had to investigate."
Doug Oliver, the county's chief building official, said the complainant in this case "was someone with a handicapped relative who couldn't get their wheelchair into the restroom."
"I DON'T BELIEVE that for a minute," said Mi-Wuk General Store owner Jim Drewrey. "No such person has talked to me. In fact, I haven't had a single complaint since Roger put his comfort station in."
So who did blow the whistle?
We may never know: The county won't disclose the identities of bitchers, snitchers, gripers, snipers, grudge-bearers and drive-by code vigilantes looking to torpedo their neighbors. In fact, the county itself may not know: It gives anonymous tipsters the same credibility it affords those with the guts to leave their names.
But to Drewrey, there's no mystery: "Someone read your story and called the county," he told me.
Which would have been easier than tagging a porta-potty at midnight: In my July 13 column on the comfort station, Johnson admitted he had built the loo without a permit and that it was not wheelchair accessible.
Naively, he and I figured the comfort station would be spared the bureaucratic ax simply because it looked and smelled a whole lot better than the General Store porta-potty it replaced some 18 months earlier.
BUT THIS STORY is not black and white: My friend and former newsroom colleague Robert Dorroh reminds us that the 17-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act is the law and should not be taken lightly.
Dorroh should know. Since a March 2000 car crash left him paralyzed from the waist down, he has been a relentless crusader for handicapped access. His efforts have helped transform Sonora from a hazardous gauntlet for the wheelchair-bound to a kinder, gentler place.
When it comes to the ADA, Dorroh admits, "I'm a hard-ass."
And his verdict on Roger Johnson? "Hes a scofflaw. He should have done it right the first time."
But the builder, perhaps focused more on aesthetics than on the law, didn't do it right the first time. And now, he says, it's too late.
As dainty as the comfort station might appear, Johnson explained, "it's built like a brick, well, outhouse." This, he said, makes expansion both impractical and prohibitively expensive.
IF THE COUNTY shuts down Mi-Wuk's charming, sparkling latrine, Drewrey may be forced to install another porta-potty. Which, because rented one-holers are ADA- and permit-exempt, would get the code cops out of town.
But wheelchairs still couldn't fit and an old familiar stench would settle among the pines. Which is but one of the reasons a petition drive to keep the comfort station flushing is gathering steam.
"People are not happy," said Drewrey. "That bathroom has become a local landmark and it gets a lot of use especially by visiting nurses and other county employees."
Across the highway at the Pine Cone Cafe, says owner Rod Helseth, "everyone who comes in has signed the petition."
County Supervisor Teri Murrison, whose district includes Mi-Wuk Village, has never used the comfort station. But she knows portables are "pretty disgusting" and is looking for a way out of the crisis she labeled "Pottygate."
AS MUCH AS I've relished telling this tale and it's tough to beat a yarn populated by snitches, scofflaws, hard-asses, bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers all wrangling over an outhouse I'm now ready for a happy ending and wish Murrison and the county luck in finding an answer.
As long as it doesn't include one of those stinkin' porta-potties.
Contact Chris Bateman at cbateman@uniondemocrat or call 588-4528.