1. Location: Stephens Way, Truro
Back Story: If you had several million dollars to spend on a Cape Cod home, you might do what Tom and Kit Dennis did and fall in love with an 8,300-square-foot house sporting clean, modern lines and a breathtaking beachfront location. For decades, the exquisite landscape had inspired American master painter Edward Hopper, who soaked it up through the extra-large picture window in his summer cottage next door. The Dennises were so taken with the modern home that they bought it last year — even though it had already been ordered to be torn down.
Tom Dennis won’t specify how much he and his wife spent to buy the controversial property in 2015, except that it was above its $4.7 million assessment. “I appreciated the aesthetic of the house,” he says, stressing that it’s less than 15 feet above grade. “And I thought the house should be saved.” An engineer by training, Dennis says: “I looked at this logically. I was naive. I really underestimated the depth of the opposition.”
Anton Schiffenhaus stands in the living room of his 800-square-foot Hopper cottage, where his family has kept the painter’s easel on display during their nearly half a century of ownership. The 85-year-old does not frame his opposition to the place next door in aesthetic terms. “The house is not ugly,” he says. “It’s just an 8,000-square-foot house that’s illegal.”
Court Path: The Dennis house had landed in litigation under its previous owner, developer Donald Kline, who paid $6.75 million for the 9-acre property in 2007 and put much of the land under conservation protection. Kline obtained building permits from Truro to turn the existing Cape on the property into habitable studio space and build the large new house as essentially an alteration. (To do that, he had to remove the kitchen from the Cape.) Neighbors sued, arguing that building a massive house, with frontage problems, under the guise of an “alteration” would make a mockery of town zoning and cheapen the priceless “Hopper landscape.” Kline built anyway. At first the town was on his side, but after adverse court rulings, it revoked his permits and became the new Kline adversary. Over eight years in Massachusetts Land Court and the Court of Appeals, “Kline kept losing, but he refused to give up,” Schiffenhaus says. “The only people who have made out are the attorneys.”
In 2009 Kline died. Two years later, his widow settled with the immediate neighbors, clearing up some contested issues like beach access easements. But the courts ruled that settlement couldn’t get around the fact that the house was an illegal structure.
Status: The house is supposed to be demolished, though mediation efforts are ongoing. Meanwhile, Dennis says he now understands that the debate runs a lot deeper than just his house. “It’s become an issue of development pressures, sense of place, affordability,” he says. “This house became a symbol of all those things.”
2. Location: Spooner Road, Chestnut Hill
Back Story: In 2004, Brookline developer and Village Smokehouse owner Alan Kaplan, along with two partners, bought a six-bedroom Colonial for $2.4 million. They received approval to subdivide the property, selling the original house for $1.5 million and securing a permit to build a high-end house on the new lot. But after exterior construction was done, and in the face of neighbor complaints that the house was too big for the lot (with plans having labeled the master bedroom suite as “non-habitable attic space”), Brookline’s Zoning Board of Appeals revoked the building permit.
Court Path: The dispute worked its way through the courts from 2005 until 2012, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled against the developers.
Status: In the summer of 2013, the house burned down. Soon after, a down-on-his-luck handyman and former Marine named Steven McCann was charged with arson, and two years after that, a Norfolk County grand jury handed up four arson-related indictments against Kaplan. Prosecutors allege that Kaplan hired the handyman to torch the new structure so he could collect on an $800,000 insurance policy. McCann and Kaplan have both pleaded not guilty in the ongoing cases.
3. Location: Bubier Road, Marblehead
Back Story: In the mid-1990s, financial adviser Wayne Johnson built a 5,000-square-foot, 35-foot-tall Georgian home overlooking Marblehead Harbor. His neighbors, pediatricians John and Ruth Schey, complained, arguing the house was too big for the lot under town zoning.
Court Path: The case dragged on through the courts for 17 years, with Johnson ultimately losing.
Status: In February 2012, a backhoe made relatively quick work of tearing down Johnson’s million-dollar house and restoring the Scheys’ original harbor views.
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