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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Has the Copar Quarry become Westerly’s Watergate?

Sun exposes job offers by quarry principals to town zoning officials
By Will Collette

Westerly Sun reporter Dale Faulkner has done a Helluva job doggedly pursuing the truth behind the controversial Copar Quarry. The quarry sits on the Westerly-Charlestown town line and has plagued more than 100 Charlestown and Westerly households.

His three-part reporting in the Sunday, March 24 Sun (click here and here and here) really ups the ante and starts to get into the real dirt. Topping the list, Faulkner documents how the operators of the quarry offered a job to Zoning Officer Elizabeth Burdick while she was determining their compliance with the town’s zoning law – and how the Zoning Officer was seriously considering it.

Faulkner also detailed how Westerly Housing Authority attorney George Comolli offered another job – as head of the Westerly Housing Authority – to Bob Ritacco, chair of the Westerly Zoning Board while the Zoning Board was reviewing Copar’s appeal of the enforcement notice issued by the Zoning Official. Comolli just happens to be the lawyer to his family’s company, Westerly Granite, which owns the land where Copar operates.

Bob Ritacco - Zoning Board chair
and central figure in growing scandal

But first, a quick background: the quarry is located on the Westerly side of Route 216 opposite the northwest corner of Charlestown.

The long-abandoned quarry is owned by the Comolli family, long-time Republican political scions in Westerly. It is leased to Connecticut-based Copar Quarry which has a very colorful history. 

When Copar re-started granite quarrying at the site, they ran it like a strip mine. They use explosives to break up huge pieces of rock which are then dropped into a rock crusher to be ground up into smaller pieces. Those rocks are then hauled out in a continuous stream of Connecticut-tagged trucks to parts unknown.

As you might imagine, it was a shock to the system for neighbors when the quarry opened. The blasts not only scare the crap out of pets and some veterans with PTSD who live nearby, but also cause damage to foundations, chimneys, and drinking well casings, according to area residents.

Huge piles of finely ground granite dust end up as clouds of silica dust when our winds blow. Rains and snow melt carry mine run-off into streams and wetlands, especially on the Charlestown side.

Federal, state and local regulators have been issuing citation after citation for Copar’s many violations. More than 50 worker safety violations have been issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. EPA and RIDEM have cited Copar for Clean Air and Clean Water violations. 

The Town of Westerly has issued cease-and-desist orders against Copar for mining outside its permitted area. 

Copar is being challenged in court for operating on land that is improperly zoned “light industrial” when it was supposed to be residential.

Click here to read more about those violations and what it feels like to live with them from one of the members of the Concerned Citizens of Bradford-Charlestown which is leading the fight against Copar.

With Copar’s checkered history and all these violations and legal problems, you have to wonder why it is still operating, especially after the town issued its cease and desist order.

The answer is complicated. The simplest explanation is that Copar admits nothing and appeals everything, using its due process rights to avoid consequences. It's most recent angle was to file a $10 million nuisance suit against Westerly charging that Westerly town officials conspired against it, which is an amazing accusation when you consider what the Sun uncovered about the job offers to zoning officials.

In August 2012, Westerly Zoning Official Elizabeth Burdick issued the town’s first notice of violation and cease-and-desist order against the Copar quarry. What she actually wrote is now in some dispute.

As issued, the enforcement action cites the conduct of the quarry as well as the question of whether it is legal to mine there in the first place. Noting the long abandoned status of the quarrying operation, the notice states the quarry is operating on an invalid zoning certificate.

Now, Ms. Burdick claims that portion of the notice was added by the town’s Zoning lawyer Jack Payne. Copar attempted to seize on this alleged discrepancy to cast doubt on the order’s legitimacy.

Why Burdick’s lawyer chose to raise Payne’s addendum now is not explained in his letter. As I understand it, as the town’s Zoning lawyer, it was Payne’s job to review Burdick’s work and to make corrections when necessary. There was strong evidence – aerial photos – showing Copar’s activity outside the permitted mining area.

Five months later, on February 28, Burdick left town employment under a cloud. The Sun’s Faulkner uncovered an e-mail string showing that Burdick had been offered a job working for one of Copar’s trash “recycling” operations in Connecticut and was considering that job offer.

After Burdick was removed from the Copar case, Bob Craven
took over and issued a strong cease-and-desist order
This compromised Burdick’s ability to continue working as the town zoning official. The day after Burdick’s e-mail, she was removed from the Copar case and, on an emergency basis, she was replaced by Bob Craven, who is also an assistant solicitor for Charlestown as well as a state Representative (D-District 32). 

While in command, Craven issued another notice of violation and cease-and-desist order that was even stronger than the one that Burdick (with Payne’s add-ons) issued a year ago.

When Copar received Burdick’s initial stop-work order last year, it filed an appeal with the town Zoning Board so it could continue operating until it had exhausted its due process rights.

That put the Copar matter in front of Bob Ritacco and the zoning board over which he presides.

Inexplicably – and to the utter frustration of the neighbors of Copar – Ritacco delayed holding a hearing on Copar’s appeal for months. Finally, in February, when it looked like there might be a hearing, Ritacco declared that he “might have a conflict of interest.” He recused himself without any further explanation, denying the Zoning Board of the quorum they needed to appeal.

Later, after pressure from the anti-COPAR group, Ritacco’s required recusal explanation form appeared, but it didn’t actually explain anything except he “may have a conflict of interest.” After a public uproar and criticism in the Sun, Ritacco filed an amended form saying that he had had “business dealings” with George Comolli.

Later, it was revealed that Ritacco's business dealings with George Comolli involved negotiating a contract with Comolli that would have given Ritacco a new job as executive director of the Westerly Housing Authority. This, despite Ritacco’s extensive property holdings in Westerly, including properties that were subsidized through the Westerly Housing Authority.

Comolli is legal counsel to the Housing Authority though based on the articles Faulkner wrote for the Sun, it's pretty clear that Comolli runs the Authority.

Once Ritacco’s impending appointment to become Housing Authority director broke in the public, that offer was withdrawn. According to Ritacco, the offer was withdrawn at his own request because he could not come to terms on a contract. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

Disclosure note: Ritacco is also head of the Westerly Democratic Town Committee. I have had numerous encounters with him when I’ve changed hats from my Progressive Charlestown role to that of a CDTC member and state Party Committee member. I do not condone his conduct.

Meanwhile, back on the Elizabeth Burdick front, her lawyer filed a letter with the town of Westerly that complained his client had been subjected to a long litany of broken promises and humiliations. Some of these offenses are generally described with no names attached. Other charges are more specific and name names.

For example, the letter names Town Planner Marilyn Spellman and others. The letter makes this claim about Bob Ritacco: “The Chairman of the Zoning Board attempted to intimidate and threaten Ms. Burdick if she continued to independently and objectively enforce the zoning laws with respect to his own personal relationships.” That clearly refers to Ritacco’s belatedly acknowledged ties to George Comolli and Westerly Granite.

Ritacco told the Westerly Sun, “Those statements are untrue and anyone that you would speak to at Town Hall would know the relationship we had was excellent. I am very surprised to even hear about this.”

Copar has exploited this confusing mess of charges, denials and conflicts by demanding that it be allowed to bring statements from Ms. Burdick forward in its still pending appeal before the Zoning Board, despite the evidence indicating that they had attempted to hire Ms. Burdick. Burdick’s lawyer says that Ms. Burdick was not working for Copar while she was handling the Copar case, but does not deny the job offer referred to in Ms. Burdick’s e-mail.

The town of Westerly asked the Judge hearing the lawsuit brought by town residents against Copar to bar Ms. Burdick’s statement from being placed before the Zoning Board. The judge refused to do that, saying the Zoning Board was entitled to make its own judgment on the merits of her statement.

One lingering question is whether Ritacco will attempt to return to the podium to chair the Zoning Board as it takes up the Copar matter again. In statements made to the Westerly Sun, Ritacco hinted that his conflict of interest in the Copar case only existed while he was in negotiations with Comolli for the Westerly Housing Authority job and that now there is no longer a conflict.

Rather than hold a hearing on March 27 with all these clouds hanging over the proceedings, the Zoning Board cancelled its meeting. The earliest they will be able to continue hearing Copar’s appeal of Burdick’s original cease-and-desist order is sometime in May. 

Former Charlestown Town Administrator Bill DiLibero
is now Westerly's interim zoning official
That led one of the anti-Copar leaders, Steve Dubois to comment, “So this gives them another 45 days to continue destroying our homes?” The answer – yes.

Adding to the irony that is Copar, the current interim Zoning Officer for Westerly, is Charlestown’s former Town Administrator Bill DiLibero. Hounded out of his job last year by the CCA Party’s “Kill Bill” campaign, Bill is looking for a new job (he was a finalist for a job in Massachusetts) and taking short-term jobs like this one. Westerly Town Manager Steve Hartford said Bill was picked because he knows the subject matter and area, needs little orientation or training and could fill in quickly.

Getting back to the revelations in Faulkner’s investigative writings about the Copar scandal, his revelations about the offer of a job by George Comolli (Westerly Granite) to Bob Ritacco (chair of the Zoning Board) and by Copar’s principals to Elizabeth Burdick (then Westerly Zoning official) – and Ritacco’s willingness to take the job and Burdick’s serious consideration of the Copar job, led me to a review of the Rhode Island General Laws.

Specifically, RIGL 11-7-3 which makes it a crime for a public official to seek or accept an inducement and RIGL 11-7-4 which makes it a crime to offer an inducement to a public official.

“No person shall corruptly give or offer any gift or valuable consideration to any person in public or private employ, or any public official as an inducement or reward for doing or forebearing to do, or for having done or forborne to do, any act in relation to the business of his or her principal, master, or employer, or the state, city, or town of which he or she is an official, or for showing or forbearing to show favor or disfavor to any person in relation to the business of his or her principal, master, employer, or state, city, or town of which he or she is an official.”