CHARLESTOWN — Friction between the towns of Charlestown and Westerly over the Copar quarries intensified Monday night when the Charlestown Town Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the Rhode Island Attorney General to look into what it called “irregularities” with Copar, Westerly Granite and the town of Westerly.
The council also unanimously approved a six-month moratorium on all new permits for extraction activities such as quarrying and mining, while the town drafts a permanent ordinance.
Westerly officials have vigorously opposed the Charlestown resolution. In a strongly worded letter dated Aug. 27 and addressed to Charlestown Town Clerk Amy Rose Weinreich, Westerly Interim Town Manager Michelle Buck expressed indignation that Charlestown would be considering a resolution “that makes unfounded accusations against members of Westerly’s Zoning Board and broad accusations against the town’s ‘current and former officials’ without basis in fact, and without accurate information. We find such statements outrageous and reckless,” Buck wrote.
Town Council President Thomas Gentz defended the resolution, noting that the Westerly Zoning Board of Review had repeatedly failed to act on Copar and Westerly Granite Co. appeals of the Town of Westerly’s cease-and-desist orders. The latest postponement, approved last week, could push consideration of the cases to the end of October. The first cease-and-desist order was issued in August 2012 but Copar has continued operations while the citations are under appeal.
“The Westerly Zoning Board continued this hearing on the two notices of violation for the summer, because one of the reasons is they needed their summer vacation,” Gentz said, expressing his frustration that Charlestown residents were affected by activities over which the town had no control. The council chamber was packed with Charlestown residents affected by the quarry.
“This quarry lies in Westerly [and we] depend on our neighbors in Westerly. So part of the frustration that I have personally and that I’m concerned about is the lack of attention to this matter in the Town of Westerly. So I’m going on the record for that, and I’m sorry that there is such a difference between the town of Westerly Zoning Board and the Charlestown Zoning Board,” he said.
Both Buck and Westerly Town Council President Diana Serra have urged Charlestown to work with Westerly rather than criticize the town’s handling of the Copar matter.
Buck could not be reached for comment, but Serra said the town was doing its utmost to resolve the issue.
“I was offended by his comments,” Serra said. “Shame on him. Westerly is doing all we can and we will continue.”
The Charlestown resolution was originally scheduled for discussion at a hearing on Aug. 13, but that changed when the town received letters from Westerly Granite attorney Christopher Mulhearn and George Comolli, a lawyer whose family controls Westerly Granite Co. Inc. and leases the quarry land to Copar.
The letters asked that the hearing be continued because the town had not given the companies sufficient time to prepare.
The town agreed to a continuance, but neither lawyer appeared at Monday’s hearing. Instead, in a letter to Charlestown Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero, Mulhearn accused the town of violating the state’s open meetings act and demanded that officials produce thousands of pages of documents to support claims of ill effects from the quarry. He also threatened to sue the town if it passed the resolution.
“We’ve already been threatened with a lawsuit,” Councilor Lisa DiBello told residents who asked the town to do more to help them. “To say that we aren’t going to spend money and we aren’t going to support you folks really isn’t completely accurate.”
Watching the proceedings and listening to the accounts of noise and dust was a senior official from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The official, David E. Chopy, chief of the DEM’s Office of Compliance and Inspection, said he had come to the hearing at Gentz’s invitation and was there only to observe.
“Mr. Gentz asked me to come down and if I couldn’t say anything, at least to listen to the residents’ concerns,” Chopy said. “I had agreed to do that, because the department’s interested in what those concerns are. We’ve gotten a lot of calls and a lot of emails from the residents….A lot of the issues that they raise are issues that the department doesn’t have the authority to regulate. The noise, the truck traffic, the hours of operation, those are things that are town issues,” he said.
The DEM issued a notice of violation to the company on Aug. 21, after an inspector determined that dust had traveled beyond the quarry’s property line and that measures to control it had not been adequate. The notice carries a $1,500 fine. The finding was based on observations that were made in May.
Gathered outside the town hall after the meeting, residents called the resolution and moratorium a promising start.
“It’s a good step,” said Enoch MacDonough, who owns a house on Ross Hill Road. “I don’t know where it’ll get us, but it’s a start. We need someone to represent the citizens of Charlestown that are not represented in Westerly.”
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