Mr. Wayne Johnson's bid to save his house from his self-destructive urges was "indefinitely postponed
" by a 2-1 margin last night. Those unfamiliar with the art of open town meeting politics, as practised in the Massachusetts towns still delusional enough to have open town meetings may not understand this reference, or the back story.
The town's Finance Committee vets the list of action items, called the warrant, before meeting. They publish their recommendations which are approve (we can afford it), don't approve (we don't think we can), no recommendation (it doesn't cost anything so we're not competent) or indefinite postponement. The latter is generally recognised as a sort of local politics limbo. It is possible, though not likely, for an indefinitely postponed item to resurface in its present form. Such measures usually undergo serious tweaking before they show up on the warrant again.
The present zoning ordinances, which set a variety of lot sizes but which do frown on narrow-fronted (or "pork-chop") lots, were set by town meeting a couple of decades ago, years before Johnson decided to ignore the law and build what he pleased where he pleased. Although most town meeting articles pass by simple majority, zoning articles must pass by a two-thirds vote. In a town in which it is close to impossible to get a two-thirds vote favouring anything, this ensures that zoning ordinances command as close to universal assent as the town is ever likely to go.
The question, then, was settled law to just about everyone but Wayne Johnson, who makes his laws up as he goes along. It is before the meeting now only because our hero discovered that the Commonwealth's courts were unimpressed by his poor little rich kid pouting act. Faced with the imminent threat of demolishing his house, Johnson did what every red-blooded American millionaire does. He hired more lawyers and discovered a loophole that allowed Town Meeting to stay the courts' decision by retroactively changing the zoning.
It took two nights of nail-biting suspense for Johnson to reach his turn. Alas, his personal article came during a meeting preoccupied with
a) Accessibility for the Old Town House, one of the nation's oldest public buildings (1727)
b) Changes to the Town Dump
c) Capital expenses for a large elementary school.
All we would have needed was any article concerning dogs and the meeting would be sitting until mid-June. Any one of these topics generates hot air in inverse ratio to its level of importance and/or controversy. We have in addition a relatively weak-kneed moderator. His late predecessor knew town meeting procedure inside out, and showed no hesitation about shutting off anyone or anything to keep things moving. With all this, it took two nights and around six hours to do less than three hours' worth of business. When the end came, poor Wayne was sent packing, despite his crying towel.
Indefinite postponement does Johnson little good, for this warrant article was a last, desperate throw. The questions remaining are whether courts and town can at last show the backbone they have failed so far to display, and who's going to pay to take the place down?* The emerging buzz seems to expect that Johnson, who has laid out every sob story he has, will hunker down and wait to have the house torn down around his ears: which might happen.
Negligent as town officials and courts have been in enforcement, we should not lose sight of the central fact in all this: Johnson's pre-adolescent hubris. He knew the lot was non-conforming, but he bought it and built on it anyway. Although he could have built a more modest, better-sited house, and avoided most of the pitfalls awaiting those who build on pork-chop lots, he did not. He built a McMansion so sited that it was deliberately in yo' face to neighbours and town officials alike. Sixteen years of "no" from neighbours, town offices, town boards and the courts was not, and perhaps still is not, enough to convince him that they meant it. He was voted down not only for his hubris, but because wiser heads understood it was not all about him. Johnson expected to do as he damn well pleased, then change the law to ratify what he had done after the fact. Marblehead should be pleased that he pursued this pleasant line of reasoning in a relatively benign field like zoning and not in, say, homicide.
*The irony in all this is that Johnson could have moved his house on the lot, or altered it. The courts made it clear that they found demolition a distasteful solution. So far had Johnson lost his reason that he never seems to have considered either option, and they may now be closed to him.
Labels: Marblehead, town meetings, zoning