The Battle of James Island
Tom Killilea welcomed John and Jane Steinmetz to Inner Little Harbor with a toast. Interrupting his own 70th birthday party in the spring of 2014, Killilea called everyone together and announced that the Steinmetzes would be purchasing property on James Island, the tiny, tree-covered peninsula in the center of the harbor. The Steinmetzes planned to build a home for their family of six there, the first house constructed on James Island that anyone could remember.
The Steinmetzes—both young, healthy-looking lawyers—received hearty applause from those assembled at Killilea’s waterfront home, many of them residents of the wealthy Cohasset neighborhood. There was James McCann, chief operating officer of Ahold USA, Stop & Shop’s parent company, and Briscoe Rodgers, an established software entrepreneur whose latest venture, ezCater, raised $3 million in 2014. Also in attendance were two members of the town’s Conservation Commission.
The Steinmetzes purchased the property on James Island in September 2014 for $1.2 million. The following April, Killilea (who didn’t respond to requests to comment for this article) organized another meeting of Inner Little Harbor residents, this one at the McCann residence, where the Steinmetzes could present plans for their 6,596-square-foot project and address any concerns. After all, these were the folks who would surround the three-story home on all sides.
“Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with Jane and I this morning,” John Steinmetz wrote afterward in an email to attendees. “We really appreciate it, and are very much looking forward to being your neighbors.” Briscoe Rodgers, the software entrepreneur, replied and called the design “beautiful,” recommended his personal builder, and told the couple to let him know if they needed any help. Everything was humming along for the Steinmetzes. Until it wasn’t.
Over the past year and a half, the couple’s plan to build their dream home has touched off a mini war in Cohasset, the fabulously well-to-do town situated on 9 craggy square miles of the South Shore. It’s a skirmish that’s featured reams of legal filings and paperwork, a barrage of sniping in the local media, weighty opinions on self-governance, a cameo by the ACLU, and one brief divergence into the well-being of a particularly vengeful breed of rare bird. If you ever needed proof that there’s nothing more vicious than a small-town feud, look no further.
Among those opposing the Steinmetzes in their quest is the above-mentioned Conservation Commission, which has effectively stonewalled the couple’s dreams on the grounds that construction of the house could have an adverse impact on the delicate salt marshes nearby, despite a number of environmental experts indicating that there is no cause for concern.
Which makes John Steinmetz believe the obstructionism is about something else entirely: the neighbors not wanting their million-dollar views spoiled. “They call it their wedding cake,” Steinmetz tells me. “You know how the wedding cake’s in the middle of the room and everybody looks at it? This is their wedding cake, and they’re all trying to protect it.”
Steinmetz, who’s taken a break from practicing law to spend more time with his four children, has occupied his newfound free time by peppering the town with legal complaints. “With a heavy heart,” he says, he’s filed four lawsuits to confront what he believes is a conspiracy against him and his wife that he compares to the Salem witch trials. “We can prove that our constitutional rights were violated,” he says.
One person opposing Steinmetz’s plans is Jonathan “Jack” Creighton, another Conservation Commission member who served as president of Boston’s Audubon Circle Neighborhood Association for 11 years. (Tom Menino once declared it “Jack Creighton Day” in Boston.) In one court filing, Steinmetz wrote that Creighton “decided that no home should be built on James Island, as it could possibly impact the views of the wealthy residents of Inner Little Harbor.” Creighton “categorically” denies this, and maintains that he and the other commissioners acted in accordance with the environmental protections they swore to uphold.
“He’s made some other pretty egregious charges, and my answer is, where is your proof?” Creighton says.
“The Steinmetzes have sued everyone in sight,” says Boston-based attorney Evan Fray-Witzer, who represents the landscape architecture firm contracted by the James Island Protection Group (JIPG) to create a rendering of the proposed structure. Steinmetz claims the firm’s “gross distortions” have created “animosity and hatred” toward him and his wife, and points to the JIPG’s Facebook page, called “Save James Island Cohasset.”
“Nothing like a few entitled, spoiled losers trying to destroy a protected wetland for their own greed and lunacy,” one Facebook commenter said. “You people are what is currently wrong with the ‘new’ Cohasset.”
“Wouldn’t I[t] just be easier to have them whacked[?]” said another.
If Italy is shaped like a fashionable boot, then James Island is more like a 6.7-acre clog. On the edge of the mainland stand gargantuan homes of varying architectural styles perched atop the gray rock, which rises dramatically from the swirling green water like a set piece from a Wagner opera. When you stand on a ledge at the southernmost tip of the peninsula, it immediately becomes clear why the Steinmetzes are fighting like hell to live here.
All that stands amid the fallen leaves and tangles of prickly vine on James Island are a few wooden stakes. They form constellations—vague representations of the pieces of John Steinmetz’s dream home. The three-story house is sketched out in orange stakes, while four blue stakes are arranged in a rectangle at the base of a rock the color of oxidized copper. That’s the pool.
Cohasset, population just over 8,000, takes its name from the Algonquin “Quonahassit,” meaning “long rocky place.” It’s overwhelmingly white (99 percent) and well educated (nearly 70 percent of residents have at least a bachelor’s degree). More than half of its households rake in at least six digits.
James Island appears on a 1919 map at the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds as part of the Sarah C. Wheelwright estate, surrounded on all sides by “flooded meadow.” At one time, the Wheelwrights had influence all over Cohasset; the annual town report for 1918 lists Charles C. as president of the library’s directors, Walter C. and Everett C. as weighers of coal, and Frank W. as the recipient of a contract “for the transportation of all pupils…by means of motor vehicles.”
When we meet for the first time in December, John Steinmetz sits in the study of his home on Sohier Street in Cohasset, kept under close watch by a half Newfoundland, half poodle named Boss. His current house is stately and kempt, with siding the color of lemon chiffon. Steinmetz has a strong jaw and a raspy, almost pained voice, as if he’s perpetually stretching his legs after a long road trip.
A native of Wethersfield, Connecticut, Steinmetz played inside linebacker at Dickinson College before studying law at Boston University, where he met Jane. Upon graduating in 1993, the two rented a place in the North End before fleeing the city for Cohasset in 2000. Jane had grown up by the ocean in Warwick, Rhode Island, often clamming with her father. When the pair learned the James Island property was on the market, they decided it was the perfect spot to raise their family.
Steinmetz drives me from his current home to James Island in his Honda Pilot. The houses get more elaborate and farther apart as the road snakes through the mossy mounds of rock jutting up out of the wetlands. He’s made this drive countless times.
Steinmetz says Tom Killilea, who hosted the couple at his birthday party, originally supported the project, telling him he’d rather see one home on James Island than a subdivision of many houses, as had been proposed in the past. The two men had known each other for some time, as their children were friends.
A few days after organizing the meeting at the McCann residence, Steinmetz claims in court documents, Killilea sat in the Steinmetzes’ family room and told them he had received an “unexpected call” from Conservation Commission member Jack Creighton, who expressed his anger with Killilea’s support for their plans. Creighton allegedly said he would use his post on the commission to block the project.
“Did not happen,” Creighton says. “I have no idea what phone call, what conversation that Tom Killilea had with John and Jane Steinmetz, okay? I never called Tom Killilea and said I was opposed to it and I was going to use my position.”
“In the rules of evidence, it’s even beyond hearsay!” he says.
About two months later, Steinmetz charges in court documents, Killilea trespassed on James Island and changed his position upon noting the placement of the stakes. Allegedly concluding that he’d be able to see the new house from his own residence on the other side of the channel, he “decided to therefore rally opposition of wealthy Inner Little Harbor resident[s] against Plaintiffs’ project,” Steinmetz wrote in his complaint.