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."

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Amy Haimerl