Taking on the Town
The owner of a landscape construction company has spent nearly three years and more than $40,000 in legal fees fighting town officials - and the company of a former state representative - over what should have been a simple land transaction to help upgrade his business. Along the way he has gotten a first-hand look at local government, filing public records requests that that helped fuel a successful legal battle and turned up other issues town leaders have been forced to fix.
When he first saw it in 2016, John Read knew this lot in West Warwick would be perfect for his landscape construction business. A flat piece of property in an industrial area, in a town where land like this is hard to find.
Read: “We looked it all over and I said okay, I didn’t even haggle the price, I said sign it.”
The owner of the land, 4N properties, was dividing up a large parcel into several individual lots. Jared Nunes, a state representative at the time, is a principal in the company, but Read said he dealt with Jared’s father, Ron Nunes.
Read, who had been storing vehicles across the street from his house two miles away paid the $80,000 asking price for a one-acre parcel - thinking it would be a simple land transaction.
That was three years ago.
Since then, Read has spent more than $40,000 in legal fees fighting the town and Nunes. The sticking point: this 40-foot-wide right of way - called Nunes Lane - that Read plans to use for access to his new property. Jared Nunes says that wasn’t part of the deal.
In the process Read and his son Derek, have taken on the town - getting a first-hand look into local government, attending meetings where they were often met with silence when questioning Town Council members. When they couldn’t get answers, they filed public records requests that helped fuel a successful legal battle and have turned up other issues town leaders have been forced to fix. More on that in a little later.
It began shortly after the sale was complete in 2016 when a surveyor hired by Read found that the deed on file at Town Hall was different from a subdivision plan the Planning Board had approved earlier in the year.
Read: “Two days later I get a call from him: ‘We have a problem.’ And I said what kind of problem can we have? I mean it’s a flat piece of land, no houses, it’s flat. He says: they changed the land description.”
In a lawsuit filed in 2017 against 4N Properties and the town, Read accused Nunes of fraud for altering the deed. Read said he doesn’t know why the sellers don’t want him to use Nunes Lane: for years it had been listed as the address for 4N properties and was regularly used as an entrance and exit way.
Jared Nunes told the Hummel Report he had no comment about the pending litigation.
Read: “We had talked about access because Nunes Lane is what I drove on and what everybody else drove on because that’s where their office was, to get to this lot. And Ron Nunes mentioned during this conversation had mentioned that he was probably going to pave it and put a cul de sac at the end of it.”
The legal process dragged on for months, with the Reads having to answer extensive motions from Town Solicitor Timothy Williamson. Read said he believes it was an effort to run up the legal tab for Williamson, and for the Reads, so they decided to drop West Warwick from the lawsuit to help minimize costs and focus on the Nunes.
Williamson tells The Hummel Report he billed the town $30,272 for just over 208 hours for legal work on the case.
It would take two years, but the Reads eventually waged a successful legal battle that reached a Kent County Superior Courtroom this spring. Judge Richard Licht agreed with Read that Nunes Lane was a right of way. Even then, Nunes’ attorney fought the decision, asking the judge to stay his decision while considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
For months this is what the right of way has looked like: Jersey barriers blocking the entrance, with a large truck and boulders blocking the path to Read’s property. Read said there was not enough property along the front of the lot front to get his vehicles and out.
But it didn’t stop there. Curious about what town records showed about 4N Properties, the Reads asked for public records relating to the company’s property, in part because of the deed dispute. Amid a stack of documents, they discovered the town had no record of required fire and building inspections for two structures constructed by Nunes.
This building, which went up in 2007, had no certificate of occupancy on file and this building across the road did not have a final fire inspection when it was built in 2016.
Read: “I know that I can’t build a building without getting a fire permit and getting a CO on it - that’s never, ever going to happen, especially in the town of West Warwick.”
Muoio: “Here you have a building in the town of West Warwick where there should be certain documentation that exists.”
Brian Muoio is a landscape architect, who the Reads plan to use when they can get access to their new lot. Muoio has done work in communities across the state and was surprised by what he didn’t find in the records at Town Hall for the Nunes’ property.
Muoio: “As things were being built, when wiring was being done, the fire marshal’s office in West Warwick, should have been brought to the site to inspect wiring to make sure it complies with fire code, and that was never done.
Read: “As you’re reviewing the file before you give this occupancy permit you have to make sure all the documentation is in this file. If the building inspector goes through the file, he has to realize there’s been no fire inspections. So how does the town issue you an occupancy permit. It’s unheard of.”
Nunes blamed the town for poor record keeping - and for not performing the final fire inspection.
In late 2017, the Reads made a presentation of their findings to the Town Council. Within days a fire inspector was dispatched to perform ‘the final’ inspection on this building - a year and a half after businesses began moving in. The inspector found minor violations, which Nunes corrected.
Muoio: “They basically went in there, did a visual inspection, noticed that there were a couple of light bulbs, out a battery missing, a buzzer wasn’t working property. And said, ‘Hey fix this.’ But, what was the root cause of that? Could it be faulty wiring behind the sheet rock? Or could it just be that battery or bulb blew out. But how can a building official or a fire marshal sign off on something they did not see built?”
Five months later Town Manager Ernest Zmyslinski issued a six-page report confirming what the Reads had found. Zmyslinskli tells the Hummel Report he could not guarantee a similar situation did not happen with other buildings prior to his arrival in West Warwick in 2016 - but he said he has addressed what he calls ‘deficiencies’ in the building department, including a new electronic permitting system that should eliminate future inspection omissions.
Muoio: “We’re not perfect, we’re not asking them to be perfect. But if they can assure us that those processes have been done, then I think we’ve done good for the community that we at least brought this to their attention and they fixed it.”
When Muoio was looking at the Reads’ lot, he wondered about the materials piled up at the back of Nunes property, since it was so close to the Pawtuxet River. Muoio filed a complaint with the Department of Environment and later found out that 4N Properties has a history with DEM dating back more than a decade.
We discovered that DEM found additional violations in a letter to the company a year ago - but a spokesman tells us nothing has been done so far to correct them. Nunes said he has been working with DEM to correct the violations.
“I’m not hiding anything here, I’m working with DEM. I have an engineer and attorney on board. I’m entitled to fight it out just like anybody else would. Just because I have someone who is not happy with a land transactions two years ago, doesn’t mean that I don’t get the same due process as everyone else when it comes to environmental issues.”
Back on Nunes Lane, the scene changed dramatically last week: Nunes - who was facing a deadline of July 27th by the judge to clear the right of way - had removed virtually all of what we had found earlier last month, but boulders he placed along Read’s property remain.
Meanwhile, the attorneys met Thursday with a Supreme Court justice after Nunes’ attorney asked for an emergency hearing. The justice declined to take action until Judge Licht holds one more hearing on the boulder issue Aug. 13th.
Read said he, too, is a taxpayer and only wanted the town to do its job.
Read: “It took us 2 /12 years and almost $40,000 to get what the town should have known when I asked them to please correct this. I didn’t ask them to intervene with Nunes, I just asked them: is this verified, this is a town plan? And at the beginning, yes it was.”
In West Warwick, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.