CAMBRIDGE — Pam Lee stood in her driveway one recent evening, pointing at the condos on the cul-de-sac around her.
“Friendly, not friendly, friendly, not friendly …”
At her feet was Sherlock, a 61-pound mixed-breed pit bull and the cause of the divide.
Feuds among condo association members are not uncommon, and battles over potentially dangerous dogs divide many communities. But Sherlock has triggered a particularly rancorous showdown, one that has drawn in the state attorney general’s office and proven a major headache for the Cambridge Village Board.
“It’s an amazing series of events,” Trustee Scott Waller said, in a way that suggested this was not a compliment.
The difficulties emerged in March, when residents of the 21-unit Land of the Midnight Sun Condominiums noticed fellow owners Pam and Graham Lee had a new dog, a pit bull.
It was a surprising discovery, because the village has had an ordinance banning pit bull breeds since 2003. The residents soon learned the Lees had gone before the village board on Jan. 28 and been granted, the same night, an exception for Sherlock, the only such exception ever issued.
Pam Lee said she and her husband bonded with Sherlock at the Jefferson County Humane Society, then learned of the breed ban. Before adopting Sherlock, they went before the village board on Jan. 28 and argued for an exception. They presented positive evaluations of Sherlock by the humane society and an animal behaviorist. Their veterinarian vouched for both them and the dog.
“She’s a doll, just a sweetie,” Lee said of Sherlock, a mix of Staffordshire terrier and American bulldog. The board agreed.
Some members of the condo association board were livid when they learned an exception had been granted so quickly and without input from neighbors.
“It’s like finding out gunfire is suddenly legal in your neighborhood and nobody told you,” said Jim Leser, whose wife, Julie, is president of the condo board.
In the months that followed, a handful of upset condo owners repeatedly showed up at village board meetings. They argued that the Lees’ request at least should have been referred to committee and discussed thoroughly, not decided on the fly. Or, better yet, that the ordinance should have been respected.
“I blame it all on the village board,” said Pauline Nurmi, a condo board member. “They didn’t stand up for the law they had on the books.”
Julie Leser said she does not fear this particular pit bull but believes there’s a reason so many communities across the country ban them. “I think in the right home everything probably is fine, but the breed itself is considered dangerous,” she said.
Pam Lee considers the opposition “breedists” — people who “judge a book by its cover.”
Village board members stuck to their initial vote, but then the condo board got a break. They discovered a typo on the public meeting notice for the Jan. 28 board meeting. The date wrongly said Jan. 14. Julie Leser contacted the state attorney general’s office.
In a June 19 response, Assistant Attorney General Bruce Olsen said “a strong factual basis” exists to suggest the meeting was not properly noticed. “The board might see a benefit in reconsidering the action it took on Jan. 28,” he wrote.
And so the issue of what to do about Sherlock — and future Sherlocks — was back on the village board agenda Tuesday, resulting in an overflow crowd.
Lee presented the board with copies of certificates Sherlock recently earned in his beginner and intermediate dog-training programs. Julie Leser said the condo association is now having difficulty getting competitive bids for its insurance coverage because of a pit bull on the premises. (Sherlock’s supporters consider that a red herring.)
Ultimately, the board decided not to specifically address Sherlock at Tuesday’s meeting. Instead, the board referred the entire dangerous dog ordinance to the village’s licensing committee to discuss whether the village should even continue its breed ban. The committee could recommend altering the ordinance, dropping it entirely or leaving it as is, village President Steve Struss said.
In a later closed session, the board took up the issue of the wrongly noticed Jan. 28 meeting. Afterward, Struss said the board likely will vote again on the actions it took Jan. 28, just to be safe. However, board members probably will put off a second vote on Sherlock until the licensing committee weighs in on the dangerous dog ordinance, he said.
In the meantime, Struss said the opinion of the village attorney is that Sherlock’s exception stands for now, so he can remain in the village, where he has the distinction of being the only pit bull legally allowed there.
Meanwhile, condo unit owners voted 13-2 at a June meeting to ban pit bull breeds from the premises, a step the condo board didn’t previously think was necessary because of the villagewide ban, Julie Leser said. The condo board does not anticipate taking any action to evict Sherlock, she said.
“We feel it’s only fair to grandfather him in,” she said.
Not surprisingly, the whole episode has caused a lot of hurt feelings.
“We feel so uncomfortable here,” said Lee, who has lived at the condominium complex for 10 years. “The energy is bad.”
A few weeks ago, the Lees put their condo up for sale. They are not sure where they will move to, though it will be somewhere other than Cambridge, they said.