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Handing over keys to the town

It would be a gross understatement to say it was disheartening to read the details of the settlement between the town of Westerly and Copar Quarries and Westerly Granite Co., that resolved three contested cease-and-desist orders pending against the quarry. Sunday’s story about a competing quarry owner’s criticism of the settlement brought to light details that indicate Copar Quarries now has free rein to do as it pleases. And that is not an exaggeration.

Included in the settlement is the following phrasing, which states the town agreed not to “take any action or pass any ordinance that would change, adversely impact, alter or in any other manner effect the current or future quarry operations and/or use of the quarry property, including but not limited to the intensity of use, hours of operation, or manner of operation.” And it goes on to state that “any ordinance enacted by the town in this regard shall be deemed subordinate, and shall not modify the terms and conditions” of the agreement.

Cherenzia Excavation is the quarrying operation that raised the criticism, claiming that the settlement creates a significantly uneven playing field for all quarries in town with Copar being the sole beneficiary of that advantage. Given the wording of the settlement, we can see how that creates a business problem for other quarry operations. But that is for them to address.

The larger point here is the carte blanche provided to Copar by the agreement. Take any part of that section referenced above and problems abound. But put those comments against the backdrop of the history between the town and Copar, and its residential neighbors, and you have the ingredients for a mess beyond description. Copar has ignored court orders in the face of complaints from neighbors about potentially dangerous conditions regarding quarry dust and blasting as well as nuisance complaints about hours of operation, the spread of the operation and the decibel level of the blasts.

What exactly does it mean that the town will not take any action that would “adversely impact, alter or in any manner effect the current or future quarry operations or use of the property?”

Could a judge at a later date interpret that to mean that any use of the property is exempt from all zoning regulations? Can Copar blast around the clock? Can they use the land for motocross competitions or a dragstrip? How about a strip club? And if science finds five years from now that the type of dust generated at the quarry is, in fact, lethal, does the settlement mean that no future ordinance can address such an issue?

Town councilors hired a separate attorney to handle this case and he eventually took on the task of crafting the settlement. The attorney may have been responsible for ensuring the language was correct in terms of legalese, but the council was the customer and they should have been aware of what they were getting — or more appropriately in this case, not getting — out of the deal. No matter how strong a case the quarry might have had going into the settlement talks, it can only be considered a mistake to have surrendered the town’s rights to regulate the site now and in the future.

This has made a bad situation worse and quite possibly has opened the door to more problems at that location. Worst of all, we don’t see any way of undoing the harm.

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