WESTERLY — Members of a prominent local family say that a move by the Town Council to prohibit quarry operations in areas zoned for residential use, and a separate ban on the use of heavy commercial vehicles on Quarry Road, are aimed at putting them out of business.
“I feel that what’s happening here is the Town Council is trying to deprive me of using my land, is trying to close me down, is trying to close Copar corporation down,” Richard Comolli, the patriarch of the family that owns the land where Copar Quarries of Westerly operates, told the Council Monday.
Westerly Granite Co. Inc., the Comollis’ company, leases land to Copar, which operates under a zoning permit issued to Westerly Granite in 2007 by former Zoning Officer Anthony Giordano. Three families that have sued the town, Copar, and Westerly Granite argue that the zoning permit was issued improperly. They assert that quarry operations had ceased prior to 2007, and that consequently, the project should have required a special use permit.
Prior to the council’s unanimous vote to approve both measures on Monday, quarry operations were allowed under a special use permit in parts of the town zoned RR-60 (rural residential) and LDR-40 (light density residential). Interim Town Manager Michelle Buck said that a lawyer hired to advise the town in the Copar case recommended the new ordinance prohibiting quarrying in residential zones. Buck said the ordinance was not aimed specifically at Copar or Westerly Granite.
Town records indicate that a portion of the Westerly Granite property is zoned for light industrial use and that a portion of the land is zoned for residential use.
David Comolli, one of Richard’s sons, said that contrary to town maps and designations by the town tax assessor, the entire parcel is light industrial and that the town never followed the proper steps to change the zoning designation. He also stated that former Zoning Officer Elizabeth Burdick deemed the quarry to be a legal, pre-existing, nonconforming use. “That was her ruling but she’s not around anymore. I don’t know what happened to her,” Comolli said.
That remark drew a quick retort from Councilor Patricia Douglas: “Because she works for Copar.”
Richard Comolli, a longtime former council president, said the council’s actions were tantamount to “harassment.” He also asserted, erroneously, that Copar had never been cited by the state for dust violations or by the town for noise violations.
“If we find out that that operation is causing health problems, we will close it down, no one has to tell us,” Comolli said.
The state Department of Environmental Management cited Copar and Westerly Granite for a fugitive dust violation in August. The companies have appealed the citation. Burdick issued cease and desist orders to the companies, saying that they had allowed dust to escape the quarry property and had created excessive noise. Robert Craven, hired by the town as special zoning officer in the Copar case after Burdick’s departure, issued additional cease and desist orders and also revoked the operation’s zoning permit. All of the cease and desist orders are under appeal.
David Comolli acknowledged that Copar’s work at the quarry was intensive. “Did we expect this? We really didn’t expect this big of an operation,” he said.
However, he maintained that the controversy arises from neighboring homeowners who purchased or built houses next to property historically used for quarrying. Those people are concerned that the value of their property is dropping and now the Comollis are at risk of having their property value drop, David Comolli said.
Westerly Granite, he said, insisted that Copar move its stone crusher 400 feet away from Bradford residents and is willing to construct berms to further insulate the operation from neighboring houses, he said. While the company wants to “be a good neighbor,” Comolli rejected claims that dust of any type, especially any containing silica, is escaping from the property.
“Quarry dust is too heavy to fly any distance,” he said.
What neighbors say is dust is actually a fungus coating their houses and other property, Comolli said.
Douglas asked why David Comolli was defending Copar.
“We are Copar. We’re together, we lease to Copar. This is a business, we’re not here for fun,” Comolli said.
Comolli said that his father in 2006 arranged, of his own accord, to limit access to the quarry to the Church Street side of the property out of concern for people who lived on Quarry Road. But he said the council’s move to keep heavy vehicles off Quarry Road would make it impossible for his father to access a part of the property he uses to store slabs of granite. The Comollis are prohibited, under federal mining policies and insurance concerns, to access the property through the same entrance used by Copar, Comolli said.
Westerly and Charlestown residents who spoke during public hearings on the two new ordinances said Quarry Road is too narrow for regular use by heavy commercial vehicles.
Edward Balbat, a Quarry Road resident and plaintiff in the lawsuit against the town and the companies, said the road is less than 13 feet wide in one spot, has no painted center line, and is poorly lit. “The road is not designed for heavy industrial use,” he said.
Al James, whose Ross Hill Road residence in Charlestown is near the quarry, presented the council with photographs that he said showed dust from the quarry coating the house. He also informed the council of multiple violations found by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration against Copar.
Denise Rhodes of Charlestown said that while quarrying may have occurred on the property decades ago, it was on a much different scale. “What happened in 1800s, what happened in 1940s, is not what is happening now in 2013 — they’re strip mining now,” she said.
Councilor Christopher Duhamel also used the term strip mining and said it was not permitted under the town’s Comprehensive Plan. He also said the town’s position, as evidenced by the zoning permit revocation, is that Copar should not be allowed to continue its operations.
Town Council President Diana Serra said the council was not trying to put “anyone out of business” but instead is committed to protecting the health of Bradford residents.
“This council is trying to address the health and safety issues in Bradford and Charlestown, not trying to put anyone out of business,” Serra said, adding that the case has been fraught with surprises. “Some of the issues you can’t make up, but we will try and continue trying. We are committed,” Serra said.
David Comolli insisted that complaints about dust and silica at the quarry are exaggerated and pointed to the presence of his 87-year old father as proof.
“He would have died 50 years ago,” Comolli said.
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