In the long awaited decision in what is believed to be the state’s longest running neighbor-vs.-neighbor court battle, a Massachusetts Land Court judge has ruled that the owner of an empty oceanfront lot in Beverly should be able to build on it, despite the repeated protests of the owner of the 24,000-square-foot mansion next door.
The epic and exhausting battle of the Beverly neighbors, which involves some of the most coveted real estate on Boston’s North Shore, has dragged on for nearly 30 years. It has pitted a luxury home developer by the name of Evan Wile against his far wealthier next-door neighbor, the investor and art collector Jeffrey Horvitz. The case has exposed how overmatched the legal system is when trying to mediate a battle between two entrenched sides willing to devote seemingly bottomless resources to winning, all while trying the patience of nearly everyone else who has become ensnared in it.
In his 36-page decision issued January 14, nearly five years after the trial in the most recent Land Court case concluded, Judge Keith Long ruled that the City of Beverly had erred in denying Wile’s request to build a house on the lot. Vacating the decisions by city officials that found Wile’s lot unbuildable, the judge determined that the lot has sufficient frontage and access for emergency vehicles. “To find otherwise would be irrational, arbitrary and capricious,” he wrote, sending Wile’s plans back to the city for review.
Wile, who has been trying to build on the Beverly Farms lot since he bought it in 1992, was overjoyed. “It’s been close to five years that we’ve been waiting for the decision, and we’re glad it’s over,” he told the Globe. “We’re at the end.”
But in a battle that has dragged on for three decades, through multiple courts and across five US presidencies, both sides have learned that they celebrate victory at their own peril. Horvitz told the Globe, “There’s no question that we will be appealing.” That means it will likely be at least another year, if not several, before the matter is settled by the Massachusetts Court of Appeals.
Long noted that no neighbors besides the Horvitzes have sought to block the Wiles from building a single-family house. “The result of the Horvitzes' opposition has been 27 years of litigation, with 17 lawsuits between the parties or otherwise involving the properties,” the judge wrote, adding, “why they have gone to such lengths in continuing to oppose a building permit on the Wile lot is a puzzle to me.”
Long ruled that Beverly officials could no longer reject Wile’s building permit application based on concerns about frontage and emergency access. However, Horvitz stressed that the judge did not order Beverly officials to issue the permit outright. The ruling stipulates that “the permit application may only be denied or modified, if at all, for other reasons.”
Over the decades, Horvitz has been successful in repeatedly blocking Wile from building a home on his 1.8-acre lot (with an adjacent 1.1-acre private beach), which he can access only via an easement over Horvitz’s property. Wile, who bought the lot at auction in 1992 for $335,000, has been just as relentless. He has used every tool at his disposal to fight back against Horvitz, from kicking up debris with his helicopter to arraying a row of foul-smelling porta potties along the property line near Horvitz’s pool. In his ruling, Long wrote, “The filing and pursuit of lawsuits can be as much or more of a weapon as helicopter flights.”
In the latest stage of the conflict, based on a strategy mapped out by Wile’s attorney, Sander Rikleen of the firm Sherin and Lodgen, the focus shifted dramatically. Instead of the question of whether Wile could erect a house on a lot that Horvitz insists is unbuildable — and even Wile has acknowledged is challenging — the question became whether Land Court would force Horvitz to tear down the two-story wing he added to his mansion a decade ago. That addition, estimated by the judge at 6,500 square feet, houses Horvitz’s art gallery, which boasts one of the world’s finest collections of 17th- to 19th-century drawings by French masters.
Rikleen’s “pox on both your houses” argument boiled down to this: If the Wile lot is unbuildable because it violates zoning regulations, Horvitz’s art gallery wing must be retroactively declared unbuildable as well. In a remarkable 2013 ruling, Judge Long essentially agreed — he stayed the demolition order, however, presumably to encourage both sides to compromise. Yet even he must have known that the chances of that happening were low in the toxic battle.
Sure enough, Wile and Horvitz ended up going to trial in Land Court. The trial portion in that case concluded in April 2015, and the closing arguments were finished four months later. Then the parties began their long wait for Long’s decision.
That there was too much waiting is one of the few points on which both sides agree. “It’s insane,” Wile told the Globe last fall. “A more interesting broader story,” Horvitz said at the same time, “is how an American court can decide not to decide for years and years with no consequences.”
Rikleen had made clear his hope that the judge, rather than forcing Horvitz to tear down his art gallery, would allow Wile to build on his property. That would enable Wile, who he said encountered significant financial setbacks after the 2008 recession, to recoup some of the millions he has spent on legal fees, fines, and other costs.
Rikleen said that he reads last week’s ruling by the judge as a “pox on the Horvitz house.” Long wrote that, if the city again denied the Wiles’ building permit on the grounds of inadequate frontage, the Wiles would have “standing to press for the tear-down and removal of the gallery.”
Rather than contemplating Horvitz demolition, Rikleen said he hopes they can get on with Wile construction. Yet he remains cautious. “It is very nice to win,” he said. “But I sort of feel like somebody who’s had his ears boxed too many times, so I’m waiting for what’s happening next.”
Back in 1992, one week after his purchase of the Beverly property went through, Wile married Lorena Nolan. Over the next few years, they had two daughters and erected a swing set overlooking the Atlantic to keep the girls occupied when Evan and Lorena visited the Beverly lot.
Today, the Wile girls are long grown, and Evan and Lorena are divorced. The swing set remains the only structure that has ever been built on the property. As part of their divorce settlement, Lorena will receive the biggest portion of her payout from the sale of the Beverly property, which would be worth millions more if it is deemed, once and for all, to be a buildable lot.
Rikleen, who admitted to becoming so emotionally invested in the case that he “carried” Wile at various points when his client was unable to pay his legal bills, called the judge’s ruling a vindication. “But it doesn’t put you where you thought you would have been back in the 1990s, when they were newlyweds.”
Wile predicted last year: “If Judge Long rules against Jeffrey [Horvitz], he’ll be unhappy. If he rules against me, I’ll be unhappy — but there’s a very small chance of that.”
In a 2016 story about the epic battle in the Globe Magazine, former Beverly building inspector Tim Brennan called Horvitz and Wile “two spoiled kids playing in a small sandbox.” He added, “I’m only 55, but I swear this fight is going to outlive me.”
Despite the long awaited court decision, the chances remain good that this battle will continue to simmer for some time to come.
“It feels great, but it’s not over,” Rikleen said. “I’ll know it’s real when there’s a building permit granted.”
Neil Swidey is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.