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Cohasset neighbors battle over building plan

Two Cohasset lots were once site of Black Rock hotel

COHASSET — It’s not much to look at — less than an acre of scraggly pines, undergrowth, and an old parking lot from a long-gone hotel — but the empty site at 559 Jerusalem Road has a great water view. And for more than two years, it’s been the focus of a nasty neighborhood dispute.

The property’s owners, Ted and Khemphet Ford, want to build a house there. A next-door neighbor, Peter DeCaprio, has said he’ll do whatever it takes to stop them.

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Their versions of the disagreement vary widely.

Ted Ford, who grew up in a house on the other side of the empty lot and now lives in California, sees himself as a victim of someone who holds influence over the town’s volunteer boards — especially the Conservation Commission, which has twice denied permits for the project.

“We are looking to do something perfectly reasonable, and we are being blocked because of a neighbor who is willing to go to any extent to block it,” Ford said.

DeCaprio contends that Ford’s property cannot legally be built upon and that he has received permits inappropriately from other town officials and boards. In particular, DeCaprio cites rules that he says should have blocked a sewer connection.

Ford and his wife bought the vacant 0.8 acre of land in 1994 in a foreclosure sale for $31,000, according to town records. The current assessment is $119,000, although local realtors estimate it’s worth closer to $800,000.

‘The issue isn’t really about our plans. It’s about property rights. . .’

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The site was a part of a bigger piece of property that once housed the Black Rock House, a rambling hotel with distinctive turrets, just across from the aptly named Black Rock Beach and fronting on scenic Straits Pond.

The hotel was famous for its guests who, according to historical society records, included playwright Thornton Wilder. He came to Cohasset in the 1930s for a performance of his play “Our Town” and stayed almost a month at the hotel, in a large octagonal room overlooking the ocean.

There have been three Black Rock hotels, all roughly at the same location, according to Lynne DeGiacomo, executive director of the Cohasset Historical Society. The first was a small inn, built in 1757 and replaced by a larger structure in the mid-1880s, which, in turn, was razed to clear the view for summer residents in houses behind it, she said.

“The third hotel was built in 1904 by Sarah Smith and it was one of the most prestigious in the area in that time,” DeGiacomo said. “Business declined, though, at the beginning of World War II, and by the 1960s, really only the bar was popular. It was demolished in 1968.”

The section of the property that housed most of the hotel was sold and a house was built, which DeCaprio bought in 2009 for $2.2 million, according to town records.

The house is for sale, and DeCaprio said he plans to move to Brookline to be closer to his children’s school, but he still seeks to stop Ford from building.

DeCaprio’s pool is close to the line of the Fords’ property, which years earlier was occupied by the hotel parking lot and a house.

Ted Ford said his family started to think about moving back to Cohasset a few years ago, and he got permission to hook into the sewer line that runs down Jerusalem Road. In late 2011, the Fords began the formal process of getting permission to build a house.

That’s when DeCaprio’s opposition took off. At meetings and in letters to town officials, he and his lawyer questioned the legality of the sewer permit and later the building permit for a house foundation, issued this spring by Building Commissioner Robert Egan.

DeCaprio also challenged the legality of building anything on the lot — a determination that Egan had made based on town zoning rules. Egan ruled that the lot was “grandfathered” under the zoning because it met requirements in place when the lot was created.

Over the last 2½ years, the project has gone through various hearings, was rejected twice by the Conservation Commission, and was deemed environmentally acceptable by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Ford sued the town and then withdrew the suit, saying he really didn’t want to sue the town and would rather work with it; DeCaprio threatened court action several times and said he still intends to take legal action if the project goes forward.

In that time, Ford has changed plans for the site, moving the house farther from Straits Pond. He’s also decided to stay in California, although he said “the issue isn’t really about our plans. It’s about property rights and the whole notion that you can do what you want [with your property] within legal limits.”

The project was recently before the Conservation Commission again — this time for permission to clear poison ivy and trees and to connect to the water and sewer lines.

Once again, DeCaprio spoke against the plan, threatened to sue, and warned the commission that “you open up the town of Cohasset to multiple actions if you allow this.”

After two hours of contentious discussion at the July 10 meeting, the commission continued the hearing to Aug. 7.

“You can always come back,” chairman Jack Creighton told Ford’s representatives. “It’s not like you’re going to build that house tomorrow.”

“I’m just extremely disappointed,” said Chris Ford, a local real estate agent and business owner who is standing in for his brother in the proceedings. “I thought this would be the end. It just seems like a never-ending process.”

Commission member James Marten said the complicated environmental issues of the site — not the neighborhood dispute — were behind the long process. “I know people get impatient with us,” he said in an interview. “But I think we’re close to a vote.”

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.
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