Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 19, 2012

Dream house turns into an unneighborly nightmare


CNHI

— By Alan Burke

CNHI News Service

MARBLEHEAD, Mass. -- It's the stuff dreams are made of: a million-dollar home overlooking one of America's most attractive harbors.

But for Wayne Johnson, an investment banker, it is the stuff of nightmares.

A judge has ordered Johnson to tear down his Cape-style house on picturesque Marblehead Harbor by Oct. 4 or face fines and jail time for contempt of court.

It could be the last chapter in a 15-year legal battle between Johnson and his next-door neighbors over the home's noncompliance with the town's zoning laws.

Along the way, Johnson said, he's spent more money on lawyers than the house cost to build, his wife left him because of the constant publicity over the dispute, and his peace of mind has been shattered.

It all started in the mid-1990s when Johnson subdivided the land on which his original home stood. He sold that home, then built a new one, with a better view of the harbor, on the vacant lot.

His neighbors, John and Ruth Shay, objected, saying the new house would block the sun and their view of the harbor.

And while Johnson had obtained a building permit from the town, it turned out the actual structure did not comply with the town's zoning regulations. It had too little frontage.

Making matters worse, local officials refused to change the zoning laws to accommodate Johnson and his home.

In a last-ditch move to save the house, Johnson recently obtained the signatures of several people in town on a petition that asked the local justice of the peace to order a special town meeting to change the zoning.

But the board of selectmen, the town's governing body, rejected the petition last week.

"It's hard for me to understand that I've been hung out to dry," said Johnson. "You don't go out and tear down somebody's house because you don't agree with them."

His neighbors, the Sheys, declined to comment, but their lawyer, Frank McElroy, said Johnson had no one to blame but himself.

McElroy said the Sheys had proposed a compromise on the location of the house before it was built, but Johnson never responded.

The decision to build despite noncompliance with the zoning laws, said McElroy, "was a slap in the face (of the Sheys) with a cricket bat. He created his own problems."

Johnson summed up the long-running dispute as a "tragedy." He said a few years ago his wife "left after all the publicity. She couldn't take it anymore. She couldn't take me in my frame of mind."

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Alan Burke is a reporter for The Salem, Mass., News. Contact him at aburke@salemnews.com.