Billionaire Charles Johnson Doubles Down With New Lawsuit To Stop Clam Shack

Jason Graziadei •

SWFM cary hazlegrove photo
The former Straight Wharf Fish Store, soon to be reopened as the Straight Wharf Fish Market. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove

The fight over the proposed clam shack restaurant on Straight Wharf isn't over yet.

Billionaire Charles Johnson, who has opposed the Straight Wharf Fish Market from the beginning, filed a lawsuit on Friday in Nantucket Superior Court to invalidate the local and state licenses granted to the proposed clam shack.

The lawsuit marks the latest chapter in a saga that has been playing out for months, with Johnson and a group of wealthy seasonal residents who own property on Old North Wharf challenging the Straight Wharf Fish Market at every turn. But both the Select Board and the Conservation Commission, along with the state, have so far ruled for restauranteurs Gabriel Frasca and Kevin Burleson in their bid to resurrect the former Straight Wharf Fish Store.

In the lawsuit filed on Friday, Johnson's attorney - Danielle deBenedictis - is specifically appealing the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission's (ABCC) April 11th approval of Straight Wharf Fish Market's application for a liquor license. That application had previously been approved by the Select Board on a 3-1 vote back in March.

deBenedictis urged the court to overturn the ABCC's approval of the liquor license, arguing that the decision was improper because the agency had failed to consider the appropriateness of the location, the existing number of establishments where alcoholic beverages can be sold, the negative impact on abutting properties, as well as the potential for noise, congestion and parking problems generated by the restaurant. She also claimed that the owner of the Straight Wharf Fish Market - Nantucket Island Resorts - had misrepresented the proposed reconstruction of the restaurant its building permit application, an assertion that has been rejected by several local agencies including the Building Commissioner.

Read the full lawsuit by clicking here

Frasca said he was not aware of the new lawsuit until he was contacted by the Current Tuesday morning. The hope, Frasca said, is to have the Straight Wharf Fish Market open for business by July. He was unsure what, if any, impact Johnson's lawsuit would have on that timeline. But the new legal obstacle being thrown at the project just months before it is scheduled to open was a frustrating new development he said

"I get it - NIMBY’ism is easy to understand, and if you’re well-heeled enough to fund any protest, no matter how quixotic, I get why one would have that impulse," Frasca said. "But when does it stop? Are we going state Supreme Judicial Court next? And, frankly, to what end? To stop a properly-zoned commercial enterprise in the Downtown Commercial Zone? Look, some people end up in court a lot. I’m lucky enough to not have been one of those people up until now. Mr. Johnson - and the members of the (Old North Wharf) co-op who are pursuing other avenues of legal obstruction - seem to know their way around these halls, and are far more experienced than I when it comes to suing or being sued by their neighbors or business partners, so maybe I am naive here. But to me this feels a lot like asking dad after mom already said ‘no'."

As Frasca alluded to, both the Select Board and the Conservation Commission have already rejected Johnson's previous attempts to stop the proposed restaurant.

deBenedictis told the Current on Tuesday that the latest effort on behalf of her client should not be considered a stall tactic.

"I don't file lawsuits as a stall tactic," deBenedictis said on Tuesday. "I think we have a very good case."

She declined to comment further.

deBenedictis’ role itself has emerged as a storyline in the ongoing saga, not only for her opening line to the Select Board in March - “We flew here from Florida, in spite of the storm, to make our utmost opposition known to you on a personal level” - but also because of her own background and business interests on the island. deBenedictis is the owner of The Summer House restaurant and bar, a commercial enterprise operating in a largely residential area.

When the opposition to the clam shack first became known, deBenedictis also claimed that she was not only representing Johnson, but also another billionaire and Old North Wharf property owner - Charles Schwab. But last month Schwab put out a statement claiming that deBenedictis had never represented him, and that he supported the Straight Wharf Fish Market. 

Frasca and Burleson's plan to resurrect the former Straight Wharf Fish Store and Stars Ice Cream - which had been a staple of the wharf for decades - includes a full-service seafood market, a 62-seat family-friendly restaurant (including 14 outdoor seats) with a take-out menu, and soft-serve ice cream.

The property, owned by another billionaire (Nantucket Island Resorts and New England Development owner Steve Karp), remains under construction, but the opposition to the project has already pushed the most recent timeline for opening by June back at least a month, if not more.

"It is very hard for Kevin and me to continue to invest the significant funds needed to rehabilitate this building and reopen this business when we are also faced with the possibility of having to stop construction or reinvent ourselves midstream," Frasca said. "And frankly it's frustrating. That said, we of course still remain committed to being good neighbors to the property-owners whose baubles abut us, and our neighbors who own or live close by. We will be respectful and hospitable and joyful and home at a reasonable hour.

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