For more than a decade a Woonsocket homeowner has pleaded with myriad local and state officials to force her neighbor to clean up dozens of decades-old vehicles on his property - some of which are parked 50 feet from her front door. After watching last month’s Hummel Report investigation on a junkyard in West Greenwich - and the state’s response once we started asking questions - she asked Jim Hummel to take a closer look at her situation.
Click here to see the DBR Decision and here for the Consent Agreement.
From her back deck Lorraine LeClerc has one of the nicer views in Woonsocket: tucked away on an acre high above the rest of the city, the land has been in her family for four generations.
This 200-year old house is where she grew up and still lives with her 93-year-old mother.
Leclerc: ``The land was beautiful, we got along it was nice and clean, then Mr. Gaffney moved in.’’
That would be Al Gaffney, Leclerc’s next-door neighbor, who for decades has been collecting and storing cars on his property. Dozens of cars.
Leclerc: ``All of a sudden we started car collections. It started with one, two, three and it got to the point where you see it now.’’
What you see - and she sees every day - is this: vehicles in various conditions and a view from her front door that Leclerc says is not only an eyesore but has ruined her property value. She has been fighting a seemingly endless battle to have Gaffney clean up his property, but run into repeated delays that have turned weeks and month into years and now, nearly a decade.
Leclerc: ``I’ve been communicating back and forth with everybody at City Hall, the mayor, the city council, three administrations, to get this resolved. I get nothing. I call D.E.M., cal the fire marshal, it’s a fire hazard, it’s a safety issue. Nothing. It’s supposed to be in Superior Court. We’ll, we forgot about it. So finally they sent it to Superior Court; it’s been in there since 2007.’’
Marcello: ``Why this sat for 10 years I have no idea, but it is definitely one of our top priorities since I’ve been here and we’re working on it.’’
Michael Marcello, who became Woonsocket’s city solicitor in late 2013, says Gaffney appealed to Superior Court a municipal court ruling that he violated local zoning ordinances. The state Department of Business Regulation - which oversees all junkyards - held its own hearing eight months ago. DBR ordered Gaffney to remove the cars from his property and he signed an agreement to have it done by the end of September.
So how many cars are on Gaffney’s two acres of land? The number is a moving target, but a state inspector said a year ago he saw 50 vehicles in various states of disrepair.
Leclerc: ``That Ford right there - that brown one, that’s been there at least 25 years, has never moved.’’
This is what the property looked like when we visited earlier this week. We found one car with a current registration sticker, but others with either outdated stickers or no license plates at all lining the street adjacent to one side of his property. Leclerc said it was a nightmare for the plows last winter.
More vehicles clog an easement that years ago used to be a road Leclerc’s family used to get in and out of their property before this one was built. Gaffney maintains that many of the cars work - and that he is working on them.
Hummel: ``Look these are operating, they’re not junk. I can start up any one of these cars, that type of thing. What do you think about that?’’
Marcello: ``You know I can’t get into the mechanics of it but I’ve been to the property, doesn’t look like many of those cars are operating. And they’re certainly not registered. And the zoning code in Woonsocket does not allow you to have even one unregistered car on your property. So he’s got like 13, or 16 or 30. I mean, he’s got more than one.’’
The city’s zoning ordinance says residents are not allowed to have any inoperable vehicles in a residential zone, but one non-registered operable vehicle is permissible. The code does allow for storage in an enclosed area, which is why Gaffney may have put up these tent-like structures for some of the cars.
Leclerc: ``September has come and gone and the only thing that he’s done so far is cut some trees down so he can get to these vehicles and has actually removed one truck so far. He’s relocating the vehicles on the property.’’
Hummel: ``You walk out the door every day and what goes through you mind?’’
Leclerc: ``I hope to God before I die I get to see this cleaned up. And that’s my mother’s wish too. Because we know what it looked like. It’s bringing down the valuation of my home. How would you like it if you walked out and saw everything that was there, each and every day. And no matter how much you spoke with him. `Oh, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that all these cars are going to be gone next week.’’’
We spoke off-camera with Gaffney nearly three weeks ago,. He asked us to give him two weeks to clean up his property, then he would speak with us. Last week he said he needed one more week. Tuesday he called to say he was not going to do an interview.
Hummel: ``Government is supposed to be there for you. You pay taxes.’’
Hummel: ``You pay a lot of taxes.’’
Hummel: ``You’ve waited years and years and you’ve asked government to help you and what?’’
Leclerc: ``Two weeks ago I got in front of the city council and I said `You’ve failed me.’ I says: `I’m a taxpayer, I pay plenty of taxes on this property and the value is being depreciated because of this junkyard, but yet you manage to, the only thing you’ve done for me is raise my taxes. You’ve failed me.’ I have done this on my own. I have supplied everybody with all the information that I have from the first email back in 2004, I have all of that information. I have all the articles in the paper from Menard’s administration saying she was going to clean it up. It’s been status conference, pending further investigation, pending further investigation.’’
Hummel: ``Is it maddening that it’s not weeks and months, but years and going on a decade?’’
Leclerc: ``The last entry on the docket was April of 2014, pending further investigation. And that was the only entry in the docket of 2014.
Marcello: ``We had hoped to get the owner’s cooperation. He has not. I think he has shown his cards. Now we have to be as aggressive as we possibly can.’’
Marcello says the city is moving as quickly as possible, noting all the parties will be in Superior Court for a status conference on Oct. 15th.
Hummel: ``You understand the frustration sometimes that government moves maybe not the pace people want. As the neighbor is looking at this now, can you give a sense of what `as quickly as possible’ looks like?’’
Marcello: ``It’s not my goal to let this going into another year or two years I’m probably thinking within a six-month time frame. At the end of the day, however, the goal is to get the cars removed and the neighborhood cleaned up. The problem is, we just can’t go on someone else’s property without some kind of court order. So I’m not going to expose the city to liability by doing that and just going in and removing the cars.’’
Leclerc: ``I would just like the property cleaned up. That’s all I want.’’
Hummel: ``You don’t have any personal animosity toward him?’’
Leclerc: `No, no.’’
Hummel: ``You just want the cars out.’’
Leclerc: ``That’s it.’’
Hummel: ``It’s not personal with you.’’
Leclerc: ``No, no, nothing, nothing. He’s not a bad guy, he really isn’t, we got along, we spoke, this and that. He did his thing, I did my thing, But it’s like `Al, clean your car, get your cars out of here. You’re blocking my easement. I need the oil trucks to come up. I need this, I need that. ` Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah.’ He doesn’t do anything. It’s like he’s above the law.’’
In Woonsocket, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.