MARBLEHEAD - In the end, the giant claw of an oversize backhoe needed only hours to do what 18 years of litigation, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and a bottomless well of angst and acrimony had been unable to accomplish before yesterday.
Beginning about 7:15 a.m., by court order, Wayne Johnson’s 5,000-square-foot, million-dollar house overlooking Marblehead Harbor finally came tumbling down.
Johnson, a financial adviser in his 70s, is moving to a rental apartment in Salem, ready “to pick himself up and start a new life in a new location,’’ said David Noonan, his attorney.
But Johnson’s neighbors in Marblehead, pediatricians John and Ruth Schey, are basking in the unfamiliar glow of natural sunshine, unblocked by the 35-foot-tall house that rose beside them in the mid-1990s, their attorney said.
“For the first time, it was light inside this beautiful house,’’ Frank McElroy, the Scheys’ attorney, said yesterday morning.
Massachusetts Land Court ruled in 2000 that the Johnson home on Bubier Road must come down, because the lot on which it sat did not meet the town’s minimum-width requirements, McElroy said.
But a string of expensive appeals, which featured a battle of intractable wills between neighbors who lived only 28 feet apart, led to a dozen years of waiting and wondering.
The legal fight effectively ended in December when Johnson withdrew his latest zoning appeal, McElroy said.
For the embattled homeowner, the fight has been a demoralizing setback, his attorney said.
“It’s been pretty devastating. Most people when they’re 74 years old are looking forward to retirement,’’ Noonan said of Johnson, who is divorced. “It would strike me that life is too short for people to be so vindictive, so vengeful.’’
Johnson “lost the battle, but I think the real sad portion of the story is that an accommodation could not have been made with the Scheys,’’ Noonan said. “I’m sure they’re drinking margaritas’’ in celebration.
Neither the Scheys nor Johnson could be reached for comment yesterday.
Noonan said that Johnson had offered to swap homes with the Scheys, who then would have had a wide view of the harbor and Marblehead Neck. Yesterday, McElroy scoffed at the recollection of that overture, as well as a proposal to alter the building plans.
“They were jokes,’’ McElroy said. “My clients’ house is a beautiful, absolutely gorgeous, shingle-style house that is designed for where it’s built. The place he built was not very interesting or nice.’’
In Noonan’s view, his client was victimized over a nonexistent water view that the Scheys argued they had lost. Although both properties are adjacent to town-owned Seaside Park, the Scheys do not have a good harbor view because of the park’s trees, Noonan maintained.
“It’s a Pyrrhic victory to be fighting for a water view that doesn’t exist and will not exist,’’ Noonan said.
McElroy insisted that the Scheys now will enjoy such a view from their two-story home. But the more important goal, he said, was access to the sun.
“The illegal density completely blocked off light to this place and created an unbelievable privacy issue,’’ McElroy said.
The case bears similarities to the demolition ordered recently for a $10 million home in Truro. In both cases, local building permits were approved for the homes, appeals were filed by neighbors, the owners were warned they could lose their homes, and state judges eventually ruled that the residences violated town zoning law.
The original rationale for approving the building permit in Marblehead seems to have been obscured by time. Mark Bobrowski, the town’s special counsel in the case, said he was unsure of the reasoning.
Although the Zoning Board of Appeals later voted, 3 to 2, to overturn the approval, four votes were needed to reverse, Bobrowski said.
Town officials, he said, are relieved to put the case behind them. “I’m sure it’s been nerve-racking,’’ Bobrowski said.
Some town residents had other words to describe this long war of legal attrition.
“It’s just totally ridiculous,’’ said Jerry Cooke, shaking his head, an employee at ACE Hardware here. “It’s a waste of time and taxpayers’ money. I think it’s absolutely asinine.’’
The house, he said, should have come down a dozen years ago.
Tony Brogna, who owns a downtown pizza shop bearing his name, shook his head in bewilderment.
“I feel bad for the owner or whoever has money involved,’’ Brogna said. “But I guess they’ve got no choice. I hate to see that, but what are you going to do?’’
Noonan and McElroy also bemoaned the money spent on the case.
“The amount spent on legal fees is obscene,’’ Noonan said. “That puts the grudge kind of in context, that people would be willing to spend in excess of six figures to fight a neighbor to tear down a house that, quite frankly, was an attractive house.’’
But Johnson, according to McElroy, spent much more thanthe Scheys.
Residents on the quiet street, tucked between Seaside Park and the causeway to Marblehead Neck, spoke quietly with each other but did not wish to comment publicly about their neighbors.
Up the street, after the news helicopters had left, the backhoe continued filling a huge container with the remnants of Johnson’s home. Only a chimney remained standing amid the debris.
“It’s not an easy thing to destroy your own house,’’ Noonan said.