CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – Imagine having a noisy neighbor who produces debris that regularly falls into food during backyard barbecues, floats through windows on hot summer afternoons and emits unpleasant odor.
Now imagine having no legal authority to complain about it.
The hypothetical is a reality in Cranston where a group of neighbors for years have fought against their next-door neighbor, North-Eastern Tree Service Inc., which manufactures mulch in a mostly residential area at 1000 Pontiac Ave.
“When you go in your pool, you come out and you’re full of mulch,” said Joann Lopes, a neighbor of the company. “You cook – full of mulch. You drink – full of mulch. We can’t do any of that. You can’t open your window.”
Lopes is one of several neighbors interviewed by Target 12 who expressed frustration with what they say is nearly constant noise of trucks, heavy equipment and tree grinding. They claim the dust from the operation has made life unbearable, and has become worse in recent years.
But Lopes – and others – are limited in what legal action they can take against the company to try and remedy the issue because of a 2013 law that protects mulch-makers against disgruntled neighbors with nuisance claims.
“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.
The law technically applies to the more than 700 arborists currently licensed in Rhode Island. But a Target 12 investigation found Cranston lawmakers created it specifically to protect North-Eastern Tree Services. (The company has also earned about $1.5 million from state contracts since fiscal 2014-15.)
Jane Austin, at the time a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Save The Bay, tried to point that out to lawmakers in a 2013 email obtained by Target 12, suggesting the proposed law “might be a piece of special interest legislation.”
But her concern was apparently overlooked, and the legislation quickly became law — effectively stifling the frustrated group of Cranston residents.
“It is not clear what problem this bill is supposed to solve,” Austin wrote at the time.
North-Eastern Tree Service owner Michael S. Sepe did not respond to multiple requests for comment over the weekend or on Monday.
When the legislation was under consideration, supportive lawmakers tried to attach mulch-making to the Right to Farm Act, which provides farmers with almost identical protections against nuisance claims.
But the move was met with fierce pushback from farming lobbyists and environmentalists, who resisted the idea that a mulch-maker or arborist should be considered the same as a farming business.
The opponents successfully drew a distinction between the two, arguing farmers are devoted to the production of food, fiber and fuel, while mulch-making is a processing business.
Janet Coit, director of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, raised concerns about the idea, even alluding to the idea that the law was being proposed to protect mulch-makers from nuisance complaints.
“Adding arboriculture and mulching to the Right to Farm Act significantly expands the classes of activity currently protected under the Act, and allows what is purely a processing operation to be protected against nuisance complaints,” Coit wrote in the letter obtained by Target 12.
The pushback in 2013 drove lawmakers to change tactics, removing the language from the Right to Farm Act and instead creating separate legislation that focused entirely on arborists.
The move placated the farming lobby, effectively eliminating opposition and paving the way for North-Eastern Tree Service to operate without legal pushback from neighbors.
In the years since, neighbors claim the company’s operations have vastly expanded, especially after 2015 when 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.
That same year, DEM paid North-Eastern Tree Service $827,602 for tree removal services, according to contract records shared with Target 12. From 2014 to 2019, DEM has paid North-Eastern Tree more than $1.5 million and has paid them another $43,000 through the first quarter of the current fiscal year.
The company, meanwhile, owes DEM $8,000 in penalties for not complying with a permit dating back to 2009. DEM spokesperson Michael Healey said that issue has been referred to a collection agency.
The contract work with the state plus the storms in recent years have helped the company financially, and also build upon the already-towering piles of mulch that cast shadows on neighboring land on Pontiac Avenue, according to neighbors.
“It’s much more intense,” said Jim Walsh, who lives next to the company. “It’s just unfortunate that like everyone here, I can’t enjoy my backyard.”
‘Intended to protect a business’
Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, sponsored the bill in 2013, and when asked about it this week, she didn’t shy away from the suggestion that it was created specially for North-Eastern Tree Service.
But she remembers the situation at the time differently, claiming the company had fallen victim to the harassment of neighbors.
“This bill was intended to protect a business of 50 years … who told the legislature that he was being harassed by owners who bought their houses knowing they were next to [an] agricultural business,” Lima wrote in an email.
Lima later walked back her comments and said the law was meant to protect any business of this type that is in full compliance with the law.
“North-Eastern Tree happened to be the one who brought the problem to our attention,” she wrote, adding that the company and others testified in favor of the legislation.
According to public records, five people signed up to testify against the bill when it was considered by the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources in 2013. Nobody signed up in support. There was also no written testimony submitted in favor of the bill.
Sepe, North-Eastern Tree Service’s owner, is no stranger to the Cranston political scene.
He’s contributed to the campaigns of nearly every Cranston lawmaker in both the House and Senate who supported the legislation, including Lima, then-Rep. Nicholas Mattiello (who became House speaker a year later) and Rep. Peter Palumbo, all Cranston Democrats. (Sepe has contributed more than $35,000 to mostly Democrats since 2002, according to records.)
State Sen. Hanna Gallo, a Cranston Democrat who sponsored the bill in the Senate, has also received campaign money from Sepe over the years. She deflected questions about whether it was passed specifically for North-Eastern Tree Services, saying Monday the law sets minimum standards for arborists and provides “basic protections for these small businesses as they conduct their normal operations.”
Gallo, however, has another connection to Sepe: the businessman purchased a two-family home from the senator for $195,000 in 2002, according to the Cranston assessor’s office.
The property abuts the company on Pontiac Avenue and is now used as part of the company’s operations. Gallo pointed out that it happened years before any vote was taken on legislation that helped Sepe and his business.
“Our family placed a house we owned on the market and ultimately sold it to Mr. Sepe, who had made the best offer,” she said in a statement.
A local fight
Over the years, Sepe has purchased other properties surrounding the business, gradually adding to the size of the operation.
Like Gallo’s former property, however, the area is largely residential, which has triggered a local fight over zoning.
While unable to file nuisance claims against the company, North-Eastern Tree Services’ neighbors are now trying to garner local support in a separate fight against the company.
The group raised those concerns during a Jan. 16 Cranston City Council Public Works Committee hearing, which Walsh said offered the neighbors an opportunity to tell local lawmakers about the “problems we live with on a daily basis,” adding that North-Eastern should not be in a residential neighborhood.
The issue is slated to come up again during a Public Works Committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday, and the neighbors — including Richard Ayres — are hopeful city leaders will help give them back a voice they say state lawmakers took away.
“Let’s see if they can live here,” Richard Ayres said about the state lawmakers that created the no-nuisance legislation. “Let them come stand in our shoes for a month. They wouldn’t make it.”