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Nantucket lawsuit over clam shack, billionaire Charles Johnson


A very seasonal legal spat is playing out in Nantucket: The billionaire owner of a $6.5 million cottage is suing a clam shack to stop it from opening a mere 18 inches away from his 1,200 square foot home.

In the summer playground of the 1%, resident Charles Johnson — former chairman of investment giant Franklin Resources and owner of the San Francisco Giants — has been quarreling with his new neighbor: Straight Wharf Fish Market. 

The clapboard establishment, serving clam rolls, oysters and New England IPAs, is nestled among the fisherman-chic cottages of the Old North Wharf in tony Nantucket Town. 

Johnson has complained that Straight Wharf and, specifically, its proposal to start selling beer and wine, might breach the peace of the New England enclave, about 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

Tiny waterfront cabins in the Old Wharf area are coveted for their central location and infamous for their value proposition: a couple of thousand square feet can sell for up to $10 million.

The dispute has pit neighbor against neighbor and has pulled in some bold-face names on the little island that Herman Melville called an “elbow of sand.”

Another summer resident, discount-brokerage mogul Charles Schwab, briefly opposed the seafood shack too. (He has since come around to the idea.)

The saga began when two local chefs set out to open the restaurant and got approval for a liquor license from the island’s select board. 

Johnson urged his neighbors to fight against the shack, circulating a list of suggested talking points. Letters flew. Neighborhood associations harrumphed. And eventually, lawyers were summoned. 

When the board ultimately approved the license, Johnson sued to appeal the decision. 

As of mid-August, after months of back-and-forth, a resolution finally seemed at hand. Johnson is said to be in discussions for a tentative agreement to end his litigation, provided Straight Wharf removes what he considers a bulky, unsightly mechanical system on the second floor of the wharf building that faces his front yard.

“There has been an agreement for the agreement,” said Kevin Burleson, co-owner of the restaurant. Johnson didn’t respond to a request for comment through his lawyer. As of Friday, Johnson’s lawsuit was still pending.

Johnson told the Nantucket Current in July that his opposition was being misconstrued. He wasn’t against two locals trying to open a seafood shack, he said. In reality, he pointed to a wealthy real estate developer who owns the wharf site and, he said, was turning up the temperature and fueling the public discourse around the conflict.

The conflict, Johnson said, was closer to “a billionaire versus a billionaire.”

The developer in question, Steve Karp of Nantucket Island Resorts, said in an interview that he’s been in contact with Johnson and isn’t trying “to get into a war with him at all.” He said the whole situation has been blown out of proportion.

“Why would you care about a little fish market on Nantucket?” Karp said. “It is a small, little restaurant in Nantucket — and it has become a big national story.”

Other billionaires who own homes in Nantucket include former Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt and Blackstone Inc.’s Steve Schwarzman, who was reportedly behind the largest private home sale in the island’s history.  

As for Schwab, he appears to be ready to give Straight Wharf a try. He dropped his opposition to the restaurant after learning that it wouldn’t have live music or dancing.

“We all look forward to enjoying a fresh clam roll and cold soft-serve twist cone on the harbor,” Steven Cohen, a lawyer for Schwab, said in an email to island officials.


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