Billionaires Strike Back: Clam Shack Faces More Challenges From Wealthy Neighbors

Jason Graziadei •

Straight wharf fish market

*Editor's note: this story was published before Charles Schwab released a statement on April 10, 2023 indicating his support for the Straight Wharf Fish Store. 

The billionaires and other wealthy property owners of Old North Wharf who fought to stop a proposed clam shack restaurant on Straight Wharf last month suffered a very public defeat before the Select Board, which rejected their arguments and voted to award restaurant, alcohol and entertainment licenses to the new venture. But they have not simply gone away.

The attorneys for the opposition have quietly mounted a new campaign to stall - if not stop - the proposed Straight Wharf Fish Market, according to e-mails and documents obtained by the Current. And it’s a fight they are waging on several fronts - both locally on Nantucket and with the state in Boston.

Attorney Danielle deBenedictis, who represents Old North Wharf property owners and billionaires Charles Johnson and Charles Schwab, has formally requested that the Conservation Commission issue an “immediate cease and desist” order as well as an enforcement order for the project, claiming the work done on the harborfront property exceeded the scope of the permit issued by the ConCom.

deBenedictis has also met with the executive director of the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) - the agency that will ultimately approve or deny the restaurant’s liquor license - and is coordinating a petition to the ABCC to appeal the town's issuance of the liquor license for the Straight Wharf Fish Market. deBenedictis wrote to her clients that she is circulating a “revised petition in a format approved by them” according to an email obtained by the Current (see the petition by clicking here).

Meanwhile, attorney Sarah Alger, who represents a separate group of Old North Wharf property owners who are challenging the 62-seat restaurant, filed a zoning enforcement request against the Straight Wharf Fish Market property with the Building Department.

Late last month, Nantucket building commissioner Paul Murphy rejected that request.

“I will not pursue zoning enforcement at this time because, in my opinion, the building permit was properly issued,” Murphy wrote in a March 31 letter to Alger.

The issuance of all the licenses approved by the Select Board last month will be contingent upon the Straight Wharf Fish Market team securing any other permits deemed necessary by the town building commissioner. That is likely why the opposition is challenging the clam shack on several fronts. Still, Straight Wharf Fish Market co-owner Gabriel Frasca said he and his partner Kevin Burleson are confident all of their permitting is in order and the full-court press by the opposition will not stop the project from moving forward.

“We will continue to work within all rules, regulations and guidelines,” Frasca said in a message to the Current. “If any defect in our application or process should be discovered - which I don’t believe to be the case - we will remedy it. But this is a commercial zone, we have taken great pains to adhere to the myriad restrictions incumbent on a harbor-side renovation project in the HDC, and we are confident that Straight Wharf Fish will move forward.”

The Conservation Commission is slated to discuss deBenedictis’ request for a cease and desist, as well as an enforcement order, at its meeting on Thursday. In her letter to the commission, deBenedictis stated “We are writing to bring to your attention work being done at the referenced property far in excess of the scope authorized by the Order of Conditions. Attached are photographs for your review depicting complete demolition and removal of all walls of the structure, as well as heavy equipment being used for the removal of materials. There was excavation, installation of a new foundation and complete reconstruction is underway.”

That letter was countered by Kathryn S. Barnicle, of ILEX Environmental Inc., a firm hired by the property owner Nantucket Island Resorts, who re-shared the supplemental information provided to the commission last year documenting the need to expand the scope of work on the project.

“The foundation repair work did not result in the expansion of the building nor any change in use,” Barnacle wrote. “No additional submittals or filings were necessary with the Nantucket Conservation Commission for this additional work. Therefore, we object to the request in the Letter for enforcement under this Order of Conditions.”

The property, which was previously operated as the Straight Wharf Fish Store and Stars Ice Cream run by Walter Sadowski, closed in mid-March, 2021. Over the past two years, it has been under construction as part of Frasca and Burleson’s plan to continue the fish market and ice cream sales while adding a 62-seat clam shack restaurant.

Charles Johnson, Charles Schwab and a group of other Old North Wharf property owners, however, believe the noise, trash, and traffic generated by a new restaurant in an area already saturated by busy dining establishments would be too much and too close to their seasonal residences.

But Frasca and Burleson said they had anticipated the concerns of their neighbors on Old North Wharf, and made the conscious decision to not max out the space they hope to occupy with the restaurant. They did not propose a bar, Frasca said, and voluntarily offered to limit the number of seats inside and out.

“This is simple family food,” Frasca said. “We don’t want a rowdy bar, we don’t want loud music. We don’t want anything other than a place you can go without reservation, get a good meal at a good price , and potentially on the water…And we would like to serve beer and wine with our food. It’s typical of the stye of food, and it’s what our guests are going to want. The decision to not put a bar in was a conscious one. There’ won’t be a bar in the future, and we won't’ be serving liquor. We want beer and wine to be enjoyed with our food.”

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