Six months ago the state’s new Director of Business Regulation - citing a public safety hazard - vowed to enforce cleanup orders that had been largely ignored for more than two decades by the owner of a West Greenwich junkyard. But nothing has changed since we visited the site last fall, and the director tells The Hummel Report his agency will have to go to court to get it done.
This was the scene six months ago when we visited Norman ``Junior’’ Carpenter’s massive junkyard in West Greenwich - decade’s worth of accumulated old vehicles, tires and car parts, with the occasional school bus mixed in.
Government officials had agreed it was a public safety threat for any vehicles neededing to get through the deeply-rutted trail for a fire or other emergency.
And a top state administrator was talking tough.
McCleary: ``This is getting done within a concrete period of time. Or the hammer is going to drop.’’
Macky McCleary, director of the state Department of Business Regulation, which oversees all junkyards in Rhode Island, had been on the job six months when he told us in September it was time to enforce local and state orders Carpenter had largely ignored for more than two decades.
Last week, this is how the junkyard looked. With the exception of some lingering snow and no leaves on the trees, virtually nothing had changed over the past six months.
Assalone: ``I don’t see any sanctions, I don’t see any fines, the state is absolutely disingenuous in what they said before.’’
John Assalone owns property adjacent to Carpenter’s land - property he says has been seriously devalued by all of the junk.
Hummel: ``There was tough talk from the state: not going to let this happen, going to make him clean it up. Do you see any change out here?’’
Assalone: ``There have been no changes out here and I think it’s becoming typical Rhode Island, not only in this situation, but more taxes, more bureaucracy, more rules and regulations and if people don’t follow them, so what? Hire an attorney.’’
And that’s exactly what Assalone did, hiring lawyer William Harsch, who filed a suit two years ago in an effort to get the property cleaned up.
Harsch: ``This place was never declared a superfund site but it could have been - and in my mind should have been. DEM should have been far more active, but they were not.’’
So what has the state been doing since last fall? We sat down with McCleary again late last week for an update.
McCleary: ``What we’ve done in those six months is aggressively pursue a resolution with the parties. We’ve put forth what I thought was an extremely reasonable offer that we worked through over a period of months with the legal staff and have not gotten sufficient response. And we’re as frustrated as you are.’’
McCleary said DBR has presented Carpenter with a consent agreement that would require him within 30 days to bring someone on to manage the site - with specific goals for a cleanup over the next several years.
McCleary: ``Should the party not accept this offer that we’ve put together we will be pursuing legal action immediately afterward. We’ve giving a deadline within the next week and we expect to hear from them a positive response, and if not, then we’ll go down the other path.’’
Hummel: ``The skeptic would say, why weren’t you doing that six months ago?’’
McCleary: ``It’s cheaper and faster to do it by agreement. Had we been successful at getting an agreement, we already would have been at work by now. Whereas now I’ve got to go through a legal path that could take months, maybe years. The judicial system is not well wired to meet my performance management goals unfortunately.’’
Carpenter’s lawyer tells The Hummel Report his client has no intention of signing the state’s consent agreement, saying it is a case of property rights. He added that Carpenter doesn’t have the money for such a cleanup anyway.
That’s an argument that doesn’t wash with Assalone, his lawyer, or the state.
Harsch: ``The money is not relevant. Because the property has to be cleaned up. This is not a question of whether you can afford to do it or not.’’
Hummel: ``What about the argument that I don’t have the money?’’
Assalone: ``Well you know what, put up your land for sale and I’ll get in here and clean up it, no problem. Or take a loan out on it, I’ll be glad to find him a loan and get it cleaned up. I’m this is kind of ridiculous. It’s not brand new. It’s years.’’
McCleary: ``That’s unfortunately an insufficient response. There’s a lot of land on this site, there’s an extraordinary amount of what I would call land wealth, associated just with this site.’’
McCleary: `Collateral. He has responsibilities. He may not have cash on hand, but he has the ability to create it if he decides he wants to.’’
McCleary has visited the site several times since our story in September and spoken repeatedly with Carpenter. And he’s ridden the road that challenges even a four-wheel drive vehicle.
McCleary: And it’s one of the main issues I have with the site that if there’s an issue up there, whether it’s a fire or some other reason that public safety professionals have to get up there. They can’t get up there and that is unfair - both to the public safety professionals, but also to the community around it.’’
Hummel: ``Do you have the tools and the resources within DBR to fight this successfully in court?’’
McCleary: ``I believe we have and we do. I think the challenge that DBR has had recently, especially on this site, has been less an issue with resources and more an issue with management. So I think the consent order that we drafted, in particular on this site was insufficient, it did not have performance measures, interim performance measures or other ins for the agency.’’
Assalone: ``He’s destroyed some major property and I guess the deal is until you’re going to sell your property, you can do anything you want. You can trash it, you can junk it, so I’m up to the challenge to step it up.’’
Hummel: ``When did it become clear to you they weren’t going to play ball?’’
McCleary: ``Honestly I still hold out a little bit of hope. We’ve got a few days left. I think I became increasingly more worried the more time we spent with them. I think it’s ultimately a very emotional decision that we’ve been trying to use a lot of reason and rational tools to address and at the end of the day it’s very hard to use reason to persuade someone who doesn’t want to come along sometimes.’’
Harsch was in a meeting with Carpenter and his lawyers last week for an update on where the case stands.
Hummel: ``Do you hold out any hope that, given what happened in that meeting that there’s going to be some type of meeting of the minds within the next week?
Harsch: ``No. None.
If so, the next step will be Superior Court.
In West Greenwich, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.