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Central Falls oil tank showdown is headed to court

CENTRAL FALLS — An oil recycling company will be in Superior Court next week trying to overturn a zoning board decision that rejected a proposal to double the number of 30,000-gallon above-ground storage tanks on its property, which borders a residential zone and is just up the hill from Scott Pond in Lincoln.

The legal showdown highlights the hodgepodge of zoning in a city where an industrial zone abuts residential property, and the oil company has hired a high-profile attorney  with more than four decades of experience in environmental and zoning law to handle the appeal.  


“If they’re allowed to add the additional tanks, it will bring it right up to my fence in my backyard,” said Daniel Issa, a former state senator, who has lived in his single-family home on Lonsdale Avenue since 1992. The tanks are 35 feet tall. 


The company, Western Oil, came to Rhode Island in 1979 and has been at its current location adjacent to Issa’s backyard on the Central Falls-Lincoln line since 2000. Western Oil 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. 

City approved tanks in the past

“We have customers that can use it as an alternate fuel, rather than buy virgin fuel,” said Western’s vice president, Jared Raftery, who runs the company his father, Paul, founded. “My customers are generating an additional amount of oil, and I’m running out of room to take it in. I’m afraid if I don’t expand, I will lose them to my competitors. They’ll go somewhere else,” he added. 

Last summer, Raftery, who 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 the necessary 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.


This time, though, the neighbors rallied, attending a series of zoning board meetings via Zoom that took place last September and October. The process included a visit by the board to the property.


Raphael Peguero, whose backyard also abuts Western’s property, testified at one of the hearings, saying he was concerned about his housing value.

“If these tanks go up, will I want to move and how will I sell my house with all these tanks there?” he said last week in an interview with The Hummel Report. 


“We had no idea they would plan to further develop and expand it,” said former Central Falls Mayor Tom Lazieh, who lives a block from the Western property. “We don’t feel comfortable with it.” 


Lazieh said he met with the owners as city councilman when they first moved to Central Falls more than 20 years ago. His main concern now is a doubling of the truck traffic that would come with a significant increase in the number of storage tanks. 


Issa said while a smattering of neighbors oppose the project, there is no concerted fight for this phase of the battle as there might be in other communities, with residents raising money for a legal fund. Nick Hemond, who has worked as an assistant solicitor in Central Falls in the past and specializes in zoning issues, has been brought in by the city to handle the appeal. He filed a 26-page response to Western’s appeal, defending the zoning board’s decision. 


Western criticizes 'hack decision'

Western hired Michael A. Kelly, a veteran litigator who has extensive experience in zoning law and at one point was general counsel for Cumberland Farms/Gulf Oil Inc. 


In a wide-ranging interview last week with The Hummel Report, Kelly called the zoning board’s 5-0 rejection of Western’s plan last October a “hack decision” that ignored testimony offered last fall. He also said it took the board 111 days to issue a formal decision after the vote, delaying his client’s appeal. 


In its unanimous decision, the board wrote: “[Western Oil’s] property abuts a residential zone. It is this Board’s opinion that the applicant currently uses its property in a manner which is appropriate to the character of the city and reflecting current and future need. Any expansion … would change the character of the city and negatively impact the neighboring residences.” 


Kelly responded: “The [zoning] board obviously was influenced by a group of neighbors objecting to it. The board acknowledged in the decision that this is an industrial zone, this type of operation is allowed with a special permit and they’ve already given them two special permits in the past.”


Besides the aesthetics of having more than a dozen tanks towering over his property, Issa said he is concerned about potential leaks and a persistent smell emanating from the business. He describes it as smelling like Chinese food. 


But Raftery said there is no odor coming from Western and that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has never cited the company with any violations. 


“If you sniff motor oil, it’s a mild smell. You have to stick your nose in the bottle to smell it,” he said, adding that he has planted trees along the property line to create a buffer zone. 


What if the tanks leak?

Then there is the tank technology. Kelly said the storage tanks are double-wall fiberglass tanks with no report of a spill anywhere in the country. “They say it’s going to change the character of the neighborhood. It’s already an industrial area,” he said. 


The board, in its decision, wrote: “Of course, this is to say nothing about the environmental impact and danger posed by the additional oil tanks. The applicant did present evidence as to measures it must take in order to contain any leaks in any of the oil tanks. The board, however, is not convinced that any safety precautions could give the abutting residents any surety that their properties would not be harmed should these tanks leak.” 


The board determined that 270,000 additional gallons on the property was too much and too great a risk to the surrounding neighbors. 


“The board found contrary to the evidence — and, frankly, they must have just made this up — that there was an environmental risk and this could somehow if there was a leak, could pollute the Blackstone River,” Kelly added. 


The two sides are scheduled to be in Superior Court on July 13 to meet with Judge Richard Raspallo. Raftery and Kelly said they would like to try to settle the case and craft a compromise without having to go through a lengthy court process. 


But, Kelly said, he is prepared to go forward. “[The zoning board decision] is not going to stand the scrutiny of the judge. I think it’s fair to say they voted in a way to please the neighbors.” 


Are there storage tanks that are wider and shorter, that would not require a special-use permit by the city? “Those are great questions,” Raftery said. “We’re looking into that now.” 


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