Pile of Problems
For more than two decades state and local officials have tried to get a local junkyard owner clean up some of his 130 acres in West Greenwich, saying it has infringed on other owners’ property and has made a right-of-way impassible for emergency vehicles. Despite orders, consent decrees and a lawsuit, the property remains largely unchanged - and one of the largest junkyards in Rhode Island. This week a top state official tells Jim Hummel: that’s about to change.
There is no sign for those driving by, no indication there is a business just behind the tree line off Weaver Hill Road in West Greenwich.
But anybody who has lived in town for any length of time knows this is the place to go if they need a hard-to-get part for their car truck. Chances are they could find it somewhere on the more than 130 acres owned by Norman ``Junior’’ Carpenter.
Breene: We used to half jokingly say that half the town didn’t like it, and the other half of the town went there Saturday to get parts.’’
West Greenwich Town Administrator Kevin Breene has known Carpenter for more than 50 years - and has watched this property, bordering Route 95, grow into something that has been the source of town and state concern and an attempted intervention for more than two decades. More recently Carpenter found himself the target of a lawsuit by an adjacent property owner, who says it’s gotten so out of control that not only has the junk ruined his own property values, but it poses a safety hazard if fire or rescue crews ever tried to make it up this access road.
Assalone: ``At one point you could risk your life coming up here because you couldn’t get through the road, there was all trash and glass all over the road.’’
John Assalone owns land that borders Carpenter’s property - he bought some of it before the junkyard expanded. Assalone also sold some lots to Carpenter near the entrance to the business.
Assalone: ``We had the property here before there was a junkyard, he has no right, even in the area where we are right now, he has no right to junk any of this area. This area has nothing to do with a licensed junkyard - this is just junk strewn throughout the forest. It just expanded beyond anybody’s imagination, destroyed the value of our family property, destroyed the value of just having good land that people could roam. It’s one of the few places you can come up with a dirt bike if you want. You can take hike and what you see is disgusting trash. Nobody dislikes Mr. Carpenter, okay, but it was wrong what he did, so clean it up. And he always told me he would clean it up, he would clean it up, and it never happened.’’
There have been four different consent decrees since 1993, signed by various parties, including Carpenter, the town and the state, which officially regulates all junkyards in Rhode Island, issuing yearly licenses. But there has not been much to show for the agreements.
In 2012 Carpenter agreed - in writing - to begin cleaning up the property, and had three years to do it. The deadline came and went this past June - and this is what the property looked like when we went for a visit last month.
Assalone made his own video - sending it to council members and state officials, before filing a lawsuit a year ago to put some bite behind his bark. But it’s not just Assalone who is concerned.
Breene: ``I think the biggest issue for the town has been a couple of the different fire chiefs have expressed real concern that in the event that a fire ever got going there’s no way to get fire trucks in there, it’s out in the middle of the woods, there’s no roads to come in the back way. It’s right side of 95, the wind blows out of the west most of the time here, which would blow smoke right onto 95 and kind of make an environmental disaster.’’
Breene said there is also a subdivision of houses off Weaver Hill Road within half a mile of the border of Carpenter’s junkyard.
Hummel: ``So do you put this in the state’s lap at this point?’’
Breene: ``Right now I do because of what’s happened in the last two or three years.’’
Hummel: ``Do you feel as much as you can do?’’
Breene: ``Yeah, I do, you don’t know the number of times I’ve been up there trying to get Junior moving, the number of times I’ve tried to be a diplomat with John Assalone in the last 30 years, trying to get everybody to get along.’’
McCleary: ``If you looked at where this was 10 years ago it would have seemed an insurmountable task, and if you look at where it is today, it remains an insurmountable task, so clearly there’s been a big failure.’’
We sat down on Tuesday with Mackey McCleary, the new director of the state Department of Business Regulation. McCleary said he visited Carpenter’s property last week after we started making inquiries.
McCleary: ``The property owner believe that he’s gotten a lot of work done, and no one else agrees with that outcome - and we have not had the consistent and effective interactions with him to ensure that’s the case and that’s something we need to fix.’’
Hummel: ``The people in West Greenwich have said: `The state’s dropped the ball. We need your help.’’’
McCleary: ``Yeah, that’s what we’re here for. So we did drop the ball. And it is absolutely my responsibility to ensure that that ball gets picked up and taken over the goal line.’’
Carpenter declined our request to be interviewed for this story, but his lawyer this week told us his client has been removing some scrap every week and is open to suggestions on how to clean up the property going forward. Unfortunately, he added, the bottom dropped out of the scrap metal market a couple of years ago and it has been difficult to attract businesses to come in and clean the property.
Breene: ``Mr. Carpenter is not hated in West Greenwich. The family has been here a long, long time. They’re average people, they’re not people that are out there burying toxic waste or anything like that. And I would say this to him if he was sitting right here: he’s a hoarder. With Junior, every car means something to him; he remembers who he bought it from, he remembers when he placed it there.’’
Hummel: ``Going back decades.’’
Breene: ``Going back decades. He’ll say, you know back in ’69 I think way over in the back there’s a Corvair, or whatever, and you walk back and it’s there.’’
Hummel: ``Why do you think they haven’t done anything?’’
Assalone: ``I don’t know, maybe they have other things to do. One of the problems really is it’s not in your face. It’s out in the woods. Woods could be really enchanting to a lot of people.’’
Hummel: ``Do you find this enchanting?’’
Assalone: ``Where I am now? No.’’
Hummel: ``You know, there are some people out there who will say: `Look, it’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s this guy’s property, you know, just leave the guy alone.’ What would you say to that?’’
MCleary: ``That’s how we got here; I think that at the end of the day especially when you’re talking about a property that size, the salvage and scraps are not just on the property - in some cases they were, part of the consent order is that they were on neighbors’ properties. And they impact the ability of, for example, emergency services to get up and around that road.’’
McCleary said he plans to meet with Carpenter, and state and local officials next week to come up with a game plan - and concrete deadlines to finally fix the problem.
McCleary: ``There is no chance that under my watch that this is going to continue for three more years , five more years, 10 more years. It’s a non starter. We can’t continue to allow this to happen. It’s unfair to the neighbors, it’s unfair to the environment. We have to get to a solution and if I can’t come to a clear solution with the parties in mind, we will find another way to get to the solution from a state level. But we will get there.’’
In West Greenwich, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.