"Billionaire Vs. Billionaire" Charles Johnson Blames Steve Karp In Clam Shack Dispute

Jason Graziadei •

Straight wharf fish market
The Straight Wharf Fish Market property, center, next to Charles Johnson's property known as "Omega" on Old North Wharf. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock.com

It’s not every day a billionaire walks into your office and wants to talk about a clam shack.

But this is Nantucket, and billionaire seasonal resident Charles Johnson has been roasted over the past four months for his opposition to the proposed clam shack restaurant on Straight Wharf directly next to his property on Old North Wharf. And so in he walked to the Nantucket Current office on North Beach Street last Thursday looking to weigh in on the controversy that has embroiled him.

Charles Johnson

Up until now, Johnson has let his attorney do the talking. But the 90-year-old former chairman and CEO of the investment firm Franklin Resources and owner of the San Francisco Giants had some things he wanted to get off his chest. First and foremost, Johnson asserted, is how the David vs. Goliath narrative surrounding his opposition to the clam shack was all wrong. It wasn’t him - the big, bad, NIMBY billionaire - versus the local restauranteurs trying to open a clam shack.

“It’s a billionaire versus a billionaire,” Johnson said, referring to Steve Karp, the billionaire CEO of Nantucket Island Resorts and owner of dozens of downtown properties including the proposed clam shack restaurant on Straight Wharf. “Karp has a wonderful PR firm that spread this little guy versus the big guy.”

While Karp’s legal team has been involved in almost every step of the way - with a presence at all of the recent regulatory hearings - and Nantucket Island Resorts has largely funded the extensive renovations underway to open the Straight Wharf Fish Market, his name has been largely absent from most of the media coverage of the dispute. But make no mistake, Johnson said.

“Steve Karp is the one behind it. He’s calling the shots,” Johnson said of his fellow billionaire.

Steve Karp

Karp did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

Since we first reported Johnson’s opposition to the clam shack restaurant back in March, the story has gone nationwide, with news outlets from Boston to San Francisco weighing in on the dispute. And Johnson has been widely cast as the villain in this story, using his vast wealth to throw as many roadblocks as possible in front of the clam shack proposed by two local and well-liked restauranteurs: Gabriel Frasca and Kevin Burleson.

At the outset of the clam shack dispute, the reclusive Johnson did not respond to an e-mail message from the Current.

“I’ve chosen not to really response up to this point,” Johnson said last week. So why now?

While Johnson’s attorney Danielle deBenedictis has provided a litany of objections to the proposed clam shack restaurant - including noise, foot traffic, and the way in which the town permitted the project - Johnson told the Current his primary issue with the clam shack restaurant came down to a single aspect of the renovated building. A new mechanical system has been installed on the second story of the restaurant along the side facing Johnson’s summer home on Old North Wharf known as “Omega,” which he purchased for $5.45 million in 2017. He contends it is the exhaust vent for the restaurant’s commercial kitchen, which will spew fumes into his yard and create noise that will disturb his family’s enjoyment of the property. Frasca says the mechanical system is part of the restaurant’s HVAC system, not the exhaust vent for the kitchen which is on the roof, and that it will be thoroughly screened once the project is completed.

IMG 0573
The view of the front yard of Charles Johnson's vacation property on Old North Wharf, with the new clam shack restaurant's mechanical system in view above the fence.

Regardless, Johnson said the mechanical system is the sticking point that is driving his opposition, and that if Karp moved it to another location on the structure, he would drop his legal challenges against the clam shack.

“It’s 18 inches from my bedroom,” Johnson said. “And my wife is allergic to fish.”

Johnson and Karp have never met in person. But the two billionaires did connect over the phone months ago when the dispute first came to a head, Johnson said.

“Steve called me in March,” Johnson emphasized. “He said we can work something out. I said let me think about it. I came up with six points.”

Those points included Johnson’s concerns about noise, foot traffic around the property, as well as live entertainment and music.

“I said no music outside and I wanted dinner music only inside, not the boom, boom, boom stuff,” Johnson said. “And the last thing was I don’t want your exhaust coming over to Old North Wharf.”

Most of those points were easily addressed. After all, Frasca and Burleson had already committed to not having a bar, a basic entertainment license with no live music, and other concessions that would limit the impact of the Straight Wharf Fish Market on the nearby residences of Old North Wharf. But there was no firm answer to the question of the restaurant’s mechanical systems.

“He (Karp) said it depends on the wind - he was very non-committal - so we left it there,” Johnson said. “I said think about it. And two weeks later I got a picture showing what’s going on. And I said there’s no way I’ll consent to this. That was the deal killer.”

Since that initial conversation back in March, Johnson claims he has had no further contact with Karp. We asked why he had not reached out directly to him regarding the mechanical system at any point during the ensuing months.

“My thought process is that would be pissing in the wind,” Johnson said.

In addition to the summer home on Old North Wharf, Johnson owns at least three other properties around Nantucket. And yes, he’s aware that many people in the community have pointed out he doesn’t even live at the wharf during the summer months. How much time does he actually spend there?

“It’s used,” Johnson said. “It’s used by family. I have 17 grandkids. They line up to stay there.”

Johnson believes the Straight Wharf Fish Market has gotten as far as it has because of Nantucket Island Resort’s large presence on the island. The company is so expansive, he said, that it was even difficult hiring a lawyer who didn’t already have a conflict of interest.

“They (the town) like Karp and they like NIR because it provides a lot of jobs,” Johnson said. “They like the commerce. That’s a fact of life. NIR is so big and they have relationships all over. Getting a lawyer that hasn’t represented them is an issue.”

Despite it all, Johnson did not appear all that angry about the situation. He sounded more like a person who wanted to put the episode behind him while still securing some peace of mind about the impact the restaurant may or may not have on his property.

“I don’t want to carry a grudge,” Johnson said. “I’d like to get along with Steve. What worries me is down the line after they open, and they ask for a liquor license. Then they want to have a small bar with seats in it. I’m afraid of the creep from it.”

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