State DEM has control over highway barn site
Issues about the quality of ground water running off from the former landfill on North Main Road and the ability of the town to build a new highway barn at that location are in the hands of the state Department of Environmental Management, and the town has no say on the matter, according to Town Council President David Long and Town Solicitor J. William W. Harsch.
Long and Harsch gave the report about DEM having ultimate authority Monday as part of their refusal to allow a group called the North End Concerned Citizens to give a computerized presentation about concerns over the groundwater quality and the use of the land for a highway barn.
The refusal by town officials Monday to hear a presentation by residents of the island’s north end was also based on concerns about the potential they see for a lawsuit from the group. The council met in executive session before the meeting to discuss potential litigation, without specifying the source of possible legal action.
Ellen Windsor and Rosemary Woodside, two of the north end residents, were told this week that they could not give a computerized presentation of their concerns about water quality at the former landfill and about the landfill site’s use for a public works garage.
New forum policy
They previously were prevented, on Aug. 15, from giving the presentation as part of the routine open forum segment of the council meeting on the grounds that the forum was intended only for spoken discussions of up to five minutes in length. They were told that a visual or computerized presentation could be allowed with council permission under a different portion of a council agenda.
Windsor asked this week that the presentation be allowed, and that the council change its policy on open forums in general to allow technically presented material. The council did not act on her proposal, although one councilor, Vice President Julio DiGiando, said he had “no problem” with such a practice.
He and council President David Long said that they have been advised by Town Solicitor Lauriston Parks that the north-end group had suggested at some point that they might sue the town over the method of water testing at the landfill and also over the intended use of a part of the landfill site for the highway barn.
Town officials acknowledged that no written notice about pending litigation has been filed, but they are concerned about the group’s hiring of a lawyer to guide the members on issues related to the landfill. Windsor and Woodside said that they knew of no pending lawsuit, or plans for a lawsuit, but Long ruled them out of order when they attempted to voice their protests about the existence of possible lawsuits.
Long told Windsor and Woodside that they could make printed copies of their information for the council, or they could arrange their own meeting to which they could invite the public to hear and see the presentation.
Long said the councilors could listen to citizens at an open forum, but the councilors “cannot respond.”
Last week, Parks said that the DEM told the town that it was up to the town how they handled the concerns of the north-end residents, including their efforts to attend a DEM tour of the landfill several weeks ago. The town responded by restricting the north enders to silently observe the tour. The North Enders claimed Parks threatened them with arrest for trespassing at the town landfill site while they were there for the DEM inspection. They said Parks had forebidden them from having any discussion with DEM officials at that time. Parks denied making an arrest threat. He said the north end residents were allowed to observe, but had no standing to take part in talks between local and state officials.
Norma Willis, a leader of the north-end group who was not at Monday’s meeting, recently said she and group members are trying to assure themselves that their wells will not be contaminated by runoff from the landfill. Town consultants GZA GeoEnvironmental of Providence have insisted there is no threat to the quality of water from the landfill. Consultants to the north end group have challenged some of the GZA statements.
Willis said she would stop opposing the siting the highway barn at the landfill if the town promised to provide municipal water to anyone whose wells are contaminated from landfill runoff.
The town and its consultants have said that such a condition would be impossible to provide because of the certainty of dispute about sources of claimed pollution that might occur.
This week Town Solicitor Harsch repeated Parks’ interpretation that the state has ruled against Town Council members taking part in open forum discussions. Harsch said the ruling reflected concerns “that an exchange with questions and answers could lead to decisions without adequate notice that the subject was an agenda item. The council can put any questions or requests on the agenda for the next meeting.”
Parks last week distributed a state advisory against officials talking to the public during such forums. The advisory by the state attorney general’s office declares that officials may not comment on, answer questions, or otherwise engage in any discussion raised during open forum. It specifically references School Committee meetings
And the attorney general’s office cited Open Meetings Act that states that rules or advisories are “in no way” intended to limit discussions at open forums, except as may be applied to school meetings.
Existing open forum rules say that any person who registers to speak is allowed five minutes. Those who ask to speak without advance registration are allowed three minutes each to state their position. In the past, the councilors have allowed rather freeflowing, somewhat unstructured forums, sometimes becoming involved in the discussions or questioning the speakers.
The state advisory distributed by Parks acknowledges that the advisory is possibly subject to other factors or interpretations or rulings, and that the state Open Meetings Act specifically “is silent on the issue of the public comment of an open meeting.”
Town officials and some residents claim the north-end residents are distorting consultant reports in an effort to reinforce their goals of keeping the barn from being built at the former landfill. The north-end group claims that town officials are distorting reports. They argue that disturbing the former landfill to construct the barn will increase possibilities of groundwater contamination.
Susan Little, another North End Concerned Citizen, this week continued to pursue her request for a neighborhood advisory committee for the barn’s design at the landfill. She said such committees were activated when the barn was considered at Taylor Point, at Fort Wetherill, and at so-called Lot 47 that abuts the landfill site.
She said she tried to talk by telephone with the councilors and with town officials, but could not get through to most, and they did not return her calls.
Little reminded the council that last spring the previous council promised a neighborhood committee when it authorized consideration of the former landfill for a highway-barn site.
Long thanked her for her comments, but the council took no action to put the topic on a future agenda.