CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – A local leader is trying to figure out whether a politically connected mulch-making company in Cranston is lawfully operating in a mostly residential neighborhood, but claims to have received no help from the Mayor Allan Fung administration.
“You just can’t do that,” said Cranston City Councilman Steven Stycos, who visited the neighborhood where several residents claim the operations of North-Eastern Tree Service Inc. have become unbearable in recent years.
Stycos, a Democrat who is considering a mayoral run to replace the term-limited Republican Fung, said he asked the city to look into whether the company is operating a commercial business in an area zoned for residential use. But he said his requests for more information — first made in January and repeated during a meeting last week — have gone unanswered.
“I was shocked,” he told Target 12. “That’s why I laid it all out last month, so they could research it and give it some thought. I got nothing for a response.”
Fung declined to comment for this story. But the city’s director of administration, Dan Parrillo, said the administration plans to visit the site later this week or next week.
In a brief phone interview with Target 12, North-Eastern Tree Service owner Michael S. Sepe said he didn’t think there was a zoning issue. But he declined to comment further and the line was disconnected.
Sepe owns 1000 Pontiac Ave., a commercial property that’s slightly larger than an acre, which his company currently lists as its address. But he also owns all but two homes immediately adjacent to the business, using them to store equipment, a 20-foot pile of logs and a few mountains of mulch.
“Those are residential properties that cannot be used for commercial use,” Stycos said.
As Target 12 first reported last week, a group of North-Eastern Tree neighbors has expressed frustration with what they say is the constant noise of trucks, heavy equipment and tree grinding that’s become worse in recent years as the business has grown.
But the neighbors are limited in what they can do about it because of a 2013 law that helps shield the company from nuisance complaints.
“No arboriculture operation or mulching operation, as defined in this chapter, may be found to be a public or private nuisance,” lawmakers wrote in the statute.
Sepe over the years has successfully purchased properties surrounding his business, including one in 2002 from Sen. Hanna Gallo, a Cranston Democrat. Roughly a decade later, Gallo helped champion the new law that specifically protects North-Eastern Tree Services from disgruntled neighbors.
Gallo has pointed out the fact that the sale happened years before the legislation, and that Sepe made the best offer at the time.
In the years since the 2013 law passed, neighbors claim the company’s operations have vastly expanded, especially after in 2015 a so-called microburst – a quick and violent storm with heavy winds – swept across Rhode Island with winds up to 80 mph, knocking down trees in most communities.
State taxpayers have contributed to the company’s bottom line, as North-Eastern Tree Services has earned about $1.5 million from state contracts since the 2014-15 fiscal year, including a spike in the year of the microburst.
The state contract work plus the 2015 storm has helped the company financially, and also contributed to the already-towering piles of mulch that cast shadows on nearby property on Pontiac Avenue and Eddy Street, according to neighbors.
“It’s much more intense,” said Jim Walsh, who lives next door. “It’s just unfortunate that like everyone here, I can’t enjoy my backyard.”
Michael S. Sepe, a Scituate resident, has contributed to the campaigns of nearly every Cranston lawmaker in both the House and Senate who supported the 2013 legislation.
He’s also contributed at least $4,500 to Fung’s campaign over the years, according to campaign finance reports. Michael J. Sepe, who lists North-Eastern Tree Services as an employer in campaign finance reports, has likewise contributed $2,000 to Fung’s campaign.
With additional contributions from Nancy C. Sepe and Adam Sepe, who also report working for the company, Fung has received 18,150 from North-Eastern Tree employees with the last name of Sepe since 2008.
Stycos said politics could be playing a role in how the business is being treated, but underscored that the city and its leader need to protect the community.
“What the city should be doing is enforcing the zoning code,” he said. “That’s why we have the zoning code to both protect the residents and the businesses … and this property is zoned residential.”