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Judge backs Central Falls Zoning Board in showdown over huge oil tanks

CENTRAL FALLS — An oil recycling company trying to double the number of 30,000-gallon above-ground storage tanks adjacent to a residential neighborhood suffered another setback this week when a Superior Court judge said the city’s Zoning Board had the authority to reject the plan.

The Hummel Report detailed the proposal and a subsequent lawsuit Western Oil filed against the city in an investigation published over the summer in The Providence Sunday Journal.

The story highlighted a hodgepodge of zoning regulations in a city where an industrial zone abuts residential property, and where the oil company hired Michael A. Kelly, a high-profile attorney with more than four decades of experience in environmental and zoning law, to handle the appeal.  

“My client and I were disappointed,” Kelly said Thursday. “We don’t necessarily agree with the decision, but we respect the judge’s decision, obviously.”

Kelly said that Western Oil is considering two options: appealing the decision to the state Supreme Court or returning to the Zoning Board with a revised plan that would ask for a special-use permit to add tanks that would not exceed the city’s height requirement.

The original proposal called for the addition of nine 35-foot tanks, 100 feet from one neighbor’s back yard. The company needed a variance from the Zoning Board to do so.

“I’m happy for the neighbors and the city. I’m happy for the [Zoning] Board,” said Nicholas Hemond, a Providence attorney who argued against the appeal on behalf of the board. “A lot of these boards put a lot of work in for no money. They do the best they can and they want to make the right decisions for the right reasons. I think they did that here.”

Superior Court Judge Richard Raspallo said he did not see enough evidence to overturn the Zoning Board’s decision.

"The [Zoning] Board was persuaded by the reports from the community, and its members' own knowledge of the area around the property, that the existing operation has created a nuisance,” Raspallo said, according to a transcript of the decision he read from the bench Monday. “To reach any other conclusion would require this court to reweigh the evidence in the record and reach its own factual conclusions, which is not permitted by our law not only in statute but as determined by our Supreme Court.”

History of Western Oil

Western Oil has been at its current location near the Lincoln town line since 2000. It bills itself as an “environmental services company,” collecting primarily used motor oil. The company trucks it in, filters it, lets the oil settle to remove any water and transfers it again. The process takes anywhere from three to five days. 

In the summer of 2020, the company, which employs 25 people, went to the city asking for permission to add nine 30,000-gallon tanks, which would increase the company's storage capacity by more than a quarter of a million gallons.

The city in 2006 gave Western permission to install four 15,000-gallon tanks. In 2012, Western came back asking for four 35-foot tanks that exceed the town’s 30-foot height limit and that tower over the adjacent neighborhood. The city approved the request.

The company hired a real-estate appraiser to testify before the Zoning Board about the effect the project would have on the neighborhood. The appraiser also addressed safety and traffic issues, but Raspallo concluded in his decision that he was not qualified as an expert to do so.

“Understanding [Western Oil] wished to more than double its capacity of storage, and with personal knowledge of the area, the [Zoning Board] was well within their discretion, to reasonably infer that there would be a greater volume of truck traffic coming, utilizing the facility. The point is, the board may not have had competent expert testimony from neighbors on the traffic issue, but neither did [Western Oil] present expert testimony on traffic issues.”

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.