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Brian McGrory

A feud with a view

On the right, Wayne Johnson's Marblehead home may face demolition Oct. 4 after neighbors complained it was too close to their home. On the right, Wayne Johnson's Marblehead home may face demolition Oct. 4 after neighbors complained it was too close to their home.
By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / September 15, 2010

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MARBLEHEAD — Don’t get me wrong, normally I love it when the well-to-do fight among themselves.

But what’s unfolding between a pair of moneyed neighbors on a narrow lane in this seaside town is enough to make even the most diehard fans of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous queasy. Forget about passing the popcorn. Make it Tums, because the Battle on Bubier Road is not destined to end well.

In fact, all signs are pointing to one of the neighbors being forced to remove — read: demolish — his 3,500 square foot house on the first Monday of October.

Let’s dwell on this fact for a moment. A neighborhood squabble has escalated to the point where a very nice house with ocean views and sea breezes is going to be knocked down. I’m not certain what this says about these people, their town, and this society, but I am certain that it’s nothing particularly good.

It began in the early 1990s, when Wayne Johnson decided that he didn’t need all the space in his rambling Marblehead house any longer. His lawyer had his land surveyed and determined there was enough property for two lots.

The town’s building inspector agreed, a decision that was affirmed by the Marblehead Zoning Board of Appeals.

Johnson subdivided his property, sold the older house, and made plans to build on the new lot next door.

According to Johnson, he approached the building inspector before the sale and said, “If I sign this, I want to make sure I wasn’t creating the Wayne Johnson Memorial Park. The building commissioner said, yes, that is a legal lot.’’

Now come the next-door neighbors on the side closest to the new lot, John and Ruth Schey, a local pediatrician and his wife.

They had moved there in the early ’90s for the hillside views and openness, their lawyer said. When they realized Johnson planned to build a house close to theirs, they asked the town to block the building permit. When that failed, they went to Massachusetts Land Court seeking an injunction against construction. When that failed, in 1995, the Scheys filed suit.

“They bought a house, one of the amenities of which was a nearly 180-degree view, with breezes and light,’’ said the Scheys’ lawyer, Frank McElroy. “Since 1996 they’ve been living in a canyon created by an illegal structure built on an illegal lot.’’

The Land Court issued a ruling in 2000 siding with the Scheys, saying that the lot was only 62 feet wide in the middle, when by law it needed to be 75 feet. By then, Johnson’s vision had become, well, a house, a gray one that stands slightly higher than the Scheys a few dozen feet away. The judge said to find some remedy — i.e. a special permit from the town — or remove it.

Johnson maintains he was never forewarned of this possibility. Court documents suggest otherwise.

What followed was another decade of wrangling before the Appeals Court, the local zoning board, and the Land Court. Town officials, who had previously sided with Johnson, have twice denied him a special permit that would make it a legal lot.

Meantime, Johnson has made offers to the Scheys, telling them to name a price for their house and he’ll buy it, proposing that they trade houses, and drawing up plans to tear down part of his top floor to enhance their views. No dice.

“He’s a very mild man with a very mild delivery,’’ said Johnson, a mild man with a mild delivery. “He would say, ‘I’m sorry but I just want your house torn down.’ ’’

And that’s what’s about to happen, on Oct. 4, unless Johnson’s last-minute attempt for a special Town Meeting succeeds.

The rubble will be a fitting symbol of an era when even neighbors in a seemingly civil community fight to the point of total destruction.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. His can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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