Developer roils neighbors with plan to build six houses in Norwell neighborhood
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A real estate developer with a history of conflict with neighbors over his projects has again stirred frustration and unhappiness, this time with plans to build a half-dozen houses in a small Norwell neighborhood surrounded by woods and accessed by a one-lane dirt road.
The conflict began about two months ago when Phil Johnson, founder of New Home Network, a family-owned company in Hanover focused on residential construction south of Boston, started making big changes to tiny George Road in preparation for his building project.
“It looks like they are building the Norwell Turnpike,” said Robert Halloran, who has lived on George Road for more than 40 years. He said he has seen the old road widened, trees cut down, and loads of logs and stumps trucked away.
Town officials say the legal reality is that, under state law, improvements to George Road, a private way, are allowed to be undertaken by any property owner abutting it, which includes Johnson.
Less than two years ago, Johnson purchased 11 acres in the neighborhood. In a recent interview, he described plans to build six Colonial-style houses and sell them at up to $750,000 apiece. He said he spent more than a year securing the necessary permissions from town government. When built, the new houses will triple the number of homes in the neighborhood.
“I am not looking to rattle any cages,” said Johnson, adding the backlash from George Road residents has been “more interesting than most” in his nearly 30 years in the business.
The vocal group of neighbors, largely represented by two couples, have brought a series of issues to town officials, including concerns about emergency vehicle access during the road project, the level of dust in the air, and the quality of soil being used. In response to municipal requests, Johnson provided the Fire Department with an access road, watered the area to reduce dust, and submitted soil samples for environmental testing, according to local officials.
“I guess there is nothing I can do to make the residents happy,’’ he said. “If they are not happy now, they are never going to be happy.
“I am in real estate development. This is what I do. We’re not always the favorite person. People don’t always like it when you are building a house or a condo near them,” Johnson said, describing an encounter with a Whitman resident about 25 years ago in which she tried to physically block tree-cutting equipment to save the woods by her home. It did not work.
“The people fail to understand that is how their houses got there,” he said.
He has faced organized criticism from residents before. In 2009, residents in Pembroke involved town officials in their struggle to get Johnson to repair a busted drain line that had caused a sinkhole on Edward Drive, part of one of his developments. He complied after a request by selectmen.
At another development, Johnson’s placement of a life-sized cow statue with a sign reading “Moove In Here” in front of condominiums on Washington Street triggered widespread community complaints in Pembroke. When selectmen pressed the issue in 2008, Johnson secured the correct sign permit after appearing before them and poking fun at the situation using an employee dressed in a cow costume.
In Norwell, Gregg McBride, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said what is happening on George Road has created a painful situation for the longtime residents but town officials cannot alter legal reality.
“Residents are rightfully upset that their quiet and private road is being changed into something that will lead into a subdivision. I understand why they are unhappy about that — but the law says Mr. Johnson has every right to improve the road just as they do,” he said.
McBride added: “Mr. Johnson can do what he is doing, but how he is doing it and whether he is doing it in a way that is courteous is another matter.”
On George Road, Halloran, a retired state trooper, said residents are troubled by Johnson’s manner on top of what they perceive as an invasive, if legal, assault on their road.
“It is because of some quirk in the law that he can just take over our street. All of us in the neighborhood feel we are getting steamrolled,” he said.
“This was a little dirt road with three houses on it. We got along fine. We took care of the road. We took care of each other,” Halloran said. “We feel run over by this guy. Just the way he went about it.”
Johnson had secured a temporary restraining order against 70-year-old Halloran, which has since expired. When asked about this move, Johnson said an information session at Halloran’s home this winter ended with the resident swearing and lunging at him across a table. Another time, said Johnson, Halloran saw him and threatened to go inside for a shotgun. Once Halloran came running at him at a fast rate on a driveway, said Johnson.Continued...