By DALE P. FAULKNER
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — A Zoning Board of Review member is firing back at critics who say the board is to blame for delays in the Copar quarry case.
“The whole reason we’ve been delayed is because of lawyers,” Henry Boeninger, a member of the zoning board for five years, told the Town Council on Monday.
Critics have seized on comments that Frank Verzillo, Zoning Board of Review vice chairman, made in June. Verzillo had said that the board would postpone its resumption of a hearing on the appeal of cease and desist orders issued to Copar and its landlord, Westerly Granite Co. Inc., to accommodate board members’ summer vacations and because the board had been advised to wait until lawyers had tried to mediate the case.
On Monday, Boeninger reluctantly agreed not to spend much time discussing the case before the Town Council after lawyers for the town said he could compromise the board’s quasi-judicial function by doing so. He did discuss the case away from the closed circuit television cameras and audio recording devices.
“None of the delays are because of the zoning board,” Boeninger said.
The board started the hearing in February after five months of postponements requested by lawyers for both the town and the two companies. Another delay occurred when Robert Ritacco, zoning board chairman, recused himself due to a conflict of interest arising from his candidacy for the position of executive director of the Westerly Housing Authority. George Comolli, the authority’s solicitor, is a principal in Westerly Granite Co. The first set of cease and desist orders were issued in August 2012 by former Zoning Officer Elizabeth Burdick.
To date, the zoning board has conducted just two sessions on the Copar case. Additional delays occurred when Burdick left her position and the board’s solicitor, John R. Payne Jr., was called as a witness in the case, making it impossible for him to continue working on it. “These things were not under the board’s control,” Boeninger said.
Burdick’s departure led to the hiring of Robert Craven as special zoning officer in the Copar case. Payne’s removal necessitated the hiring of a new lawyer, Per Vaage, to represent the zoning board. Craven, who later issued his own cease and desist orders — including one that revoked the zoning certificate for the quarrying operation — needed time to review the case, which led to additional delays, Boeninger said. In addition, Vaage advised the board to hold off on resumption of the hearings because of efforts to mediate a solution.
“The lawyers are the ones that are causing the delays. We were told not to proceed, because of the mediation, and to do so would be at the town’s peril,” Boeninger said. “But what are you mediating? We have a town zoning ordinance and we [the board] have a function.”
Boeninger, an 18-year veteran of the General Assembly, said he was insulted by a letter and resolution from Charlestown officials to the Office of the Attorney General, which he said raised questions about the board’s integrity.
He also called the accusations made by Charlestown officials “ironic” because Westerly officials hired Craven, who is Charlestown’s assistant solicitor.
“The two communities should be working together, not throwing stones and grandstanding,” Boeninger said.
Bradford and Charlestown residents, whose property is near the quarry, have complained for more than two years about dust and noise they say is caused by Copar. The company has denied violating state or local laws.
Town Solicitor John Stockwell Payne, John R. Payne Jr.’s son, and Thomas Moses, a lawyer hired by the Town Council to review and advise on the Copar case, asked Boeninger not to comment, citing his role on the board.
“Because the zoning board is hearing the case, you cannot comment because you are supposed to be evaluating it. If you have concerns it would be better to wait until after the case is heard to bring them to the council,” Moses said.
Town Councilor Christopher Duhamel said he was confident that the zoning board would conduct a fair and impartial hearing when it resumes the Copar case.
Resident Jean Gagnier said that while he found the charges made by the Charlestown Town Council to be “offensive” and “embarrassing,” he agreed that the Copar case had raised “troubling” questions. He pointed to documents submitted to the town by Comolli in 2000 and 2007. In 2000, Comolli sought and received approval for the erection of a cellphone tower on his family’s land, where Copar now operates. In filings with the town, Comolli and a consultant hired to work on the project referred to the site as an “abandoned quarry.”
In 2007 Comolli sought and received the zoning permit currently in use for the quarry operation. In the application for the zoning permit, Comolli said that “stone quarrying out of existing quarries used by Comolli Granite is allowed to continue as a legally nonconforming use.”
While lawyers might be able to argue that the two applications are not contradictory, Gagnier said, laymen cannot. “It looks ridiculous, it looks corrupt,” he said.
He also pointed to other alleged discrepancies, noting that the Comolli property was listed on town tax records as vacant residential land from 1999 to 2003.
Council President Diana Serra asked Gagnier to stop speaking shortly after he uttered the word “corrupt.” (Gagnier is chairman of a council advisory group, the Public Works Committee.)
“Let’s let the hearings go on. The information will come out. Let the process unfold,” Serra said.
In related business, the council voted to conduct a public hearing on Oct. 7 on a proposed ordinance that would prohibit the operation of heavy commercial vehicles on Quarry Road, which runs along a portion of the quarry property. Copar uses Church Street as the main entrance to the quarry.
Serra said that she had spoken with Verzillo earlier Monday and that the board was preparing to release a list of scheduled meeting dates to resume and complete the Copar hearings.