EAST PROVIDENCE - A Riverside woman whose neighborhood borders acres of woods says it took nearly a year to get the Department of Environmental Management to cite her neighbor for wetlands violations - and issue a detailed remediation plan.
Sonya Gendron has become a familiar name at the DEM, East Providence City Hall and the governor’s constituent services office the past two years, as she tried to get the attention of public officials. Gendron implored investigators to look at what she said were alterations to wetlands that changed the quality of life at the house she bought eight years ago.
Her case pits taxpayer expectations against the responsiveness and resources of a state agency that has been chronically understaffed over the past decade. “One of the things we emphasize here is customer service,” DEM Director Terry Gray told The Hummel Report last week, adding that his agency gets thousands of complaints a year.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to drop everything every time somebody calls, or if they call 10 times. But there should be some responsiveness there. It’s essentially a workload management thing, Gray added. “These (inspectors) are out in the field all of the time. They see things that are serious, and they see things that are less serious. It’s a whole spectrum of alterations.”
The DEM’s staffing numbers tell the story: Two decades ago the department had 556 full-time employees; that had dropped to 376 in 2016. This year the department is approved for 425 full-time employees, but has 33 vacancies, including four in the Office of Compliance and Inspection, which investigates potential wetlands violations.
Michael Healey, the DEM’s lead spokesperson, told The Hummel Report this week: “We know that even with a full and trained staff, our Office of Compliance and Inspection division needs more staff to properly enforce the new wetlands regulations.”
Gendron first contacted DEM in late June 2021 about what she asserted were wetlands violations by her next-door neighbor. They included clearing of trees and vegetation within 50 feet of swampy land behind his house (state law changed last year to extend the distance to 100 feet). After dozens of phone calls and emails with videos that she thought would prompt investigators to move a little faster, Gendron left East Providence City Hill, where she had visited the mayor’s office, and drove unannounced to the DEM headquarters in Providence to confront one of the people assigned to the case.
“His response was: ‘Well, you know, these things take time, and we’re short staffed,’” Gendron recalled. DEM inspectors had visited her neighbor’s house a month after Gendron filed her complaint, walking into the woods from a right of way several houses away. Once they reached the area Gendron had described, the inspectors observed tires, buckets, garbage, yard waste, grass clippings, rocks, bricks and cement adjacent to a swamp.
The inspectors returned to speak with the owners, James and Suzanne Desrosiers. When no one answered, they left a ‘door hanger’ asking the Desrosiers to call them. They never heard back. The inspectors deemed the violations “minor,” and the case languished for months as they moved onto other investigations.
When the DEM finally met with the Desrosiers 10 months later, inspectors confirmed the findings of their first visit. That prompted the department to issue a five-page Notice of Intent to Enforce, with a roadmap for remediation.
Jim Desrosiers, in an interview last week with The Hummel Report, acknowledged that while he violated some wetlands laws, he did it unknowingly, and that some of what Gendron has accused him of was unfounded and that they are being “harassed.” He said he never received the door hanger asking him to contact the DEM in 2021 and readily cooperated once they met the next spring.
Complicating the case: the violations are on property owned by Darling Development Corporation, bordering the backyards of houses along Elson Drive. Gendron says Desrosiers also violated the city’s land development and subdivision regulations by extending his own back yard well onto Darling property without a plan -or permission - from city officials.
Darling did not respond to the DEM as the case unfolded, and did not respond to The Hummel Report last week. And the DEM did not press the issue with Darling because the agency didn’t believe the company was responsible for the violations. Desrosiers had extended his own back yard onto Darling’s property years ago and ultimately onto a wetland.
At various times over the years, Desrosiers had a fire pit, a horseshoe pit, a pool and a shed on Darling’s land, which he eventually had to move back onto his own property.
Gendron said it is frustrating that a taxpayer can’t get a timely response from a government agency, especially when she was persistent in her attempts to have DEM take action; it was an effort that included 22 emails. Gendron’s assertion: that violations continued to take place during the 11 months it took DEM to finally connect with the homeowner - despite an avalanche of pictures and videos that she provided to inspectors.
David Chopy, who oversees the DEM Office of Compliance and Inspection, said the department was well aware of Gendron’s frequent communication.
“Often there is a disconnect between the remedy that DEM accepts and what others, including neighbors, think the remedy should be,” Chopy said. “Her emails and calls were relentless, and with hundreds of other cases also to manage (DEM) responded to her inquiries as best it could and provided her as much information as it could without compromising the investigation.”
Gendron had been looking for a house in 2015 when she found one online in Riverside, just off The Wampanoag Trail, that looked promising. But it was the house across the street that caught her eye when she arrived in the neighborhood and saw a ‘For Sale By Owner’ sign in the yard. It was an 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom Cape.
The realtor was the daughter-in-law of the people who had lived in the house. “She showed me the backyard, it was fenced in, and the realtor said: ‘Nobody can build back there, it’s wetlands,’” Gendron said in an interview at her house last month. “I pretty much was instantly sold - even though it needed updating and modernizing, it had everything that I had been looking for. It’s the land that got me in the back, the privacy and the nature.”
Gendron said there were deer and wild turkey; she planted trees in her front yard and some in the back. For several years everything was quiet and she was cordial with her neighbors.
Then, Gendron said, she saw Desrosiers take down a tree and clear vegetation toward the rear of his property (which was actually Darling’s property); she also saw bricks, concrete and scrap steel way in the back - later confirmed by DEM inspectors - within the perimeter of a wetland. Desrosiers insisted it was there when he moved in nearly 20 years ago and he did not dump any of the material there.
Three years ago, a huge tree from Darling’s property fell, wiping out a shed in Gendron’s back yard and some of her wooden fence. Gendron believed it came down because Desrosiers had disturbed the wetlands near it. That opened up a clearer sight line from her back yard to the Desrosiers’ and Darling’s property, where she said she saw some of the debris in the woods - and Desrosiers regularly clearing vegetation within the wetland perimeter. She also lost privacy in her own yard.
“It’s not on his property,” Gendron said. “And he’s not respecting the wetland.”
Gendron, who kept detailed notes, first reached out to the DEM on June 29, 2021. She waited a month and heard nothing. Finally, on September 9, Anthony Sawaia from the DEM emailed her, saying he had visited the home, but was unable to contact the owners. “I have yet to hear back from them and suspect they don’t have any intention to,” Sawaia wrote. “I ask for your patience with this case. Cases can take many months or years even outside of difficulties due to Covid and it all depends on how responsive and cooperative the respondents are.”
Gendron kept sending emails and videos through the fall, including two emails to Sawaia just days before Christmas. At varying points over the past two years she has reached out to the mayor’s office in East Providence, which contacted DEM multiple times on her behalf. And Gov. Dan McKee’s office also contacted the DEM, after fielding several calls from her.
Gendron resumed her emails to DEM in May 2022, discovering that Sawaia had left the state agency in March, but no one from DEM had told her.
She eventually discovered that John Anderson, a senior environmental scientist and one of the first inspectors to visit the Desrosiers in July 2021, had been assigned to take over. On May 16, 2022 Anderson emailed Gendron: “I have received all of the videos you’ve sent. Thank you, we will follow up with the homeowners.” Nine days later he and another DEM employee finally met with the Desrosiers at their home.
In his report, Anderson wrote: “Mr. Desrosiers claimed that some of the fill along the slope (landscape debris, yard waste, concrete piece, etc.) were dumped by neighbors or had been on the property since the time he bought it, but ultimately agreed that he would do whatever he needed to be in compliance with the DEM, and claimed responsibility for most of the alterations onsite.”
In an interview at their home last Sunday, Jim Desrosiers said he and his wife were shocked when DEM contacted them, alleging violations, adding that some of the accusations were false. For example, he had a truckload of loam delivered so he could fix his lawn in the front and back, not to fill in the wetlands as Gendron had told inspectors.
Desrosiers said that a couple of old trees on Darling’s property fell and he took down another because he was concerned it, too, would fall, resulting in the stumps that Gendron saw. He said that’s what happened with the giant tree that fell on Gendron’s property three years ago. The insurance company deemed it an ‘Act of God.’
Desrosiers, who works as a property manager, acknowledges he has extended his lawn well onto Darling’s property, significantly expanding the size of his backyard, but said he did not know he was infringing on wetlands.
At one point, he said Darling told him to move a shed he had set up on their property, away from their land. “I never really thought about it, I was just cleaning up what was falling in my yard,” Desrosiers said. “I didn’t know anything about wetlands, there are no signs or anything.”
The DEM, in its report, said that Desrosiers had altered, without authorization, 3,500 square feet of freshwater wetlands, by “clearing, stumping, grading and filling in the former of at least soil, material, landscape, debris and solid waste.”
Gendron recently reviewed a copy of the 50-page DEM file obtained by The Hummel Report. She maintains that Desrosiers did not meet the restoration requirements, even though the department has signed off on his work and considers the case largely resolved. For example, Desrosiers planted nine white pine trees on Darling’s property bordering the wetlands - but it is not one of the species listed as an option for planting by the agency. In a follow-up email, the DEM’s Healey said inspectors last fall told Desrosiers verbally he should plant white pines, but they would need to survive a year to fulfill the restoration requirement. Gendron said Desrosiers also continues to clear vegetation at the back edge of the grassy area, well within the 100 feet of a wetland now proscribed by state law.
Healey, the DEM’s spokesman, said: “We recognize that as a neighbor who’s watched what’s going on, Ms. Gendron is very upset about this case and outcome. As an executive agency, DEM enforces the laws that the General Assembly passes proportionately and as they were intended to be enforced. This is what we tried to do in this case, and we accept that some people will find the remedy insufficient.”
Gendron returned to the DEM in March to file a new complaint and saw a corkboard with pictures outside one of the offices. “It promoted instances where DEM sprinted into action after people had converted wetland areas for their own personal use,” she said. “How ironic.”
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