When Neighbors Attack
For a story of dogs and socialites acting badly, the 3000 block of South Race Street is an unlikely setting. The Cherry Hills Vista neighborhood is a typical middlebrow community filled with ranch-style homes, manicured lawns and a few driveways featuring cars jacked up on blocks. The gated community four blocks farther south seems a more probable locale -- especially since one of the main characters in the tale is the current treasurer and previous president of the Denver Country Club.
Unlikely or not, this block has become the focus of a feud marked by profanities hurled by bluebloods, dogs surreptitiously pooping on lawns, whispered smear campaigns, tit-for-tat animal-control citations, and old friends and neighbors divided over the yapping of dogs -- and the yapping of their owners.
Mike Newbury was once friendly with John Loss, his across-the-street neighbor who's active in the Denver Country Club. The two men hung out together, went to Broncos games, watched out for each other's houses. And it wasn't just them: The entire block was an example of what Newbury likes to call "good neighboring."
Newbury fancies himself a real neighbor's neighbor, the guy you call when you need to get dug out of a blizzard. When the neighborhood was experiencing a spate of thefts and vandalism a few years ago, he helped found the Cherry Hills Vista Community Association. When his job required him to travel to Kansas City every week, he found a roommate to share his three-bedroom house and take care of his three miniature dachshunds. When John Loss's wife, Sara, told Newbury that the dogs were aggravating his next-door neighbors, Chris and Carol Matthews, he developed Operation "Q," for quiet. When a "Q" sign appeared in the Matthews's window, Newbury knew the back yard was off limits -- not just for his dogs, but for him, his girlfriend, Marla Leighton, her two sons and their two dachshunds. No barbecuing, no yardwork, no tossing the ball around. Quiet.
So last winter, when Newbury and Leighton started talking about living together, he assumed his neighbors would toast his good fortune and new family. He assumed they would support his request to the city's Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals for an exemption so that they could keep all five dogs, which weigh a combined sixty pounds. He assumed his "good neighboring" would pay off.
He assumed wrong.
"It's been absurd, like a Shakespearean tragic comedy or an opera like Pagliacci or something," he says.
"The whole thing was pretty stinky," says Heller Bates, who's lived on the other side of Newbury for seven years and supported his appeal. "It got totally blown out of proportion, I think, of what was trying to be accomplished. For everything he has done for this neighborhood, I don't think he was asking too much."
What he was asking for was an exception to the Denver zoning code that allows only three dogs per household in R-1 areas such as Cherry Hills Vista. If Newbury was granted the exception, then Marla, her two boys and their two dogs would move in -- but the exception would be good only for their current dogs, and no new animals could be added once Audrey and Ginger, the two elderly dachshunds, died. It would also begin with a one-year trial, with revocation possible if neighbors deemed the dogs nuisances. "It's so important to Michael and I to be together and be able to keep our pets. They're like our children," Leighton says. "We were willing modify our lifestyle any way we needed to make this work. We just wanted a chance."
Theirs wasn't an atypical request: The zoning board considers pet cases frequently, although variances to allow chickens are far more common than those for dogs. In order to get approved, Newbury had to show the hearing board that he met five conditions: that he owned the property and was its primary resident; that the dogs were to be kept as pets; that the Denver Division of Animal Control had inspected the house and deemed it acceptable for five dogs; that abutting neighbors had been notified and letters of consent sought; and that the "exception would not substantially or permanently injure the appropriate use of adjacent conforming property."
Newbury began soliciting his neighbors' consent in early March, as he saw them in their yards or out walking their own dogs; fourteen of his sixteen closest neighbors signed statements or agreed to send letters confirming their support. He posted the required zoning-exemption sign in his yard. And then, on the morning of March 17, Sara Loss asked him to move his garbage can so she wouldn't have to look at it all week while he was away.
Newbury did, but when he later called John Loss to ask for his friend's support on the zoning exemption, the conversation didn't go well. The garbage-can problem was just the beginning; Loss said that his wife was also concerned about Newbury's dogs barking during the day. "He got very upset that I didn't come to ask them first," Newbury remembers. "He wanted to know what concessions we were going to bring to the table to get his support, what we were going to do to control the barking."
That was the first time he'd heard about any barking concerns, Newbury says. (Neither John Loss nor his wife responded to messages left at his office or their home.) He told Loss that he was planning to buy citronella collars that would spray the dogs each time they barked; was installing ultra-sonic anti-bark devices; was closing off the dachshund window in the fence; and was no longer letting the dogs outside unsupervised. In exchange, Newbury said, Sara Loss would need to keep Kramer, the couple's black standard poodle, from running free through the neighborhood, inciting the other dogs to bark.
Loss didn't agree. "People have to make decisions as to what is more important to them," he wrote the zoning board in late March. "Another alternative that exists for the applicant and his pets and his girlfriend and her family and her pets is to move some place where five dogs are not prohibited."
Shortly after the discussion between Newbury and John Loss, Sara Loss and Carol Matthews (who didn't respond to phone messages, either) began distributing fliers that described how "property values could be harmed and the integrity of our neighborhood could be damaged." They didn't mention that the dogs weigh roughly twelve pounds each; that Newbury, who is still on the neighborhood association's crime committee, was requesting the exception; or that Newbury's house has a well-groomed, 4,200-square-foot enclosed back yard. They got 48 neighbors to sign on, although none of the other six houses directly abutting Newbury's property -- the ones most heavily considered by the zoning board -- agreed to oppose his request.
Heller Bates was shocked when they tried to lobby her. "I love those dogs, and I've never heard them barking excessively," she says. "I mean, if all these people care so much about their neighborhood, I'd like to know why nobody turns their porch light on. That block is dark, and it's the only thing I've ever asked of my neighbors."
When Newbury found out about the fliers, he started his own campaign and convinced several homeowners to sign statements changing their allegiances. A few others declined, he says, saying they feared retribution from Sara Loss. And on April 4, Newbury understood why. When he asked her to put Kramer in the back yard so he wouldn't excite the dachshunds, she responded with a profanity. When he came back out to take photos documenting her uncooperative behavior for the board, she started swinging her tennis racket and told him to "fuck off," he remembers.
Newbury isn't the only one to comment on Sara Loss's behavior. On a recent Sunday, she was standing in front of her house swearing and complaining to a neighbor about Newbury's dogs while Kramer ran up and down the streets. Last October, she was given a summons by animal control after Kramer was accused of biting a jogger. "Ms. Loss was very hostile and uncooperative, cussing and swearing at me and also slamming the door in my face three times, twice by myself the last time with a DPD officer by my side," the report reads.
A week after the tennis racket run in, Newbury looked outside and spotted Kramer pooping in his yard -- while his owners egged him on.
By the time the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals met to hear the case on April 22, many neighbors were no longer speaking to each other. Several homeowners went neutral in an attempt to preserve the peace and avoid the bickering. Thirteen neighbors sent letters or signed petitions in Newbury's favor, and eleven homeowners, including the president of a neighboring neighborhood association, wrote notes in opposition.
"We have only twenty minutes to hear this whole case," chairwoman Dixie Trimble announced at the start of the meeting. Even so, discussion stretched out for nearly an hour as boardmembers found themselves having to defend the board's right to exist -- many homeowners were opposed to any exceptions to the law, period. (There have been only four other variance requests -- none pet-related -- for this neighborhood; two cases were approved and two were dismissed.)
"Denver City Council created a system in which they said, 'We'll set a limit of three dogs, and we'll have a procedure whereby people can get an exception,'" boardmember Barbara Shecter said. "So y'all are in opposition to a process that is exactly the reason that we're here. During the time that the exception is in place, you actually have more power than you do right now to get the barking controlled, because you have a root of controlling it. If the barking continues to be a problem, the license would not be renewed."
The opposition didn't buy that argument. "I've lived next to Mike for the last five years, and I can unequivocally state that for the last five years, there's been a severe noise problem, and only recently, when Mike has wanted two more dogs, has there been any attempt to mitigate the noise factor," Chris Matthews told the board. "And as a professional real estate agent, I know the consequences of a property being stigmatized by environmental conditions. It causes problems with marketability in the future. Neighborhoods with gang activity, with crack activity, under difficult flight patterns -- those have stigmatized properties, and it affects their property values."
Seeing how controversial the case was, the five-member board voted, and, with the exception of Trimble, decided to conduct its deliberations in private (something its members do frequently). And when they came back on the record ten business days later, everyone but Shecter had voted to deny the exception -- despite earlier endorsements of Newbury's request by a city attorney and the division of animal control. They gave no reasons for their decision other than the request's failure to meet all five conditions. "I think the condition that wasn't met was the method by which neighbors would be protected from nuisance," says staff director Janice Tilden. "That's what they're pinning their hat on. On non-pet-related things, neighbors don't have a lot of discretion, but there is more discretion in the animal cases than others."
And that would have been that. Except that Mike Newbury and Sara Loss keep getting called into doggie court -- once because Newbury called animal control for Kramer being off-leash, and once because Loss called animal control for excessive barking by the dachshunds. Animal control is now so wary of taking calls from the block that a supervisor must give approval before an officer responds -- a rare situation, according to director Doug Kelley, who says that neighbors don't often use animal control as a retaliatory measure.
In an attempt to bring the block back together, Newbury contacted Community Mediation - Denver, a nonprofit with which the city contracts to help settle neighborhood disputes. So far, though, no other neighbors have shown an interest in joining the mediation process. For that matter, Leighton is no longer interested in joining the neighborhood, either. "I could care less if we ever live here," she says. "I'm really hurt by it."
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