NORTH SMITHFIELD – A dispute over a local composting operation is headed for the town Zoning Board after the owner, Frank Jacques, appealed a cease-and-desist order issued by the town back in January.
Town Zoning Official Kerry Anderson issued the order after neighbors repeatedly complained that the composting business, located at 300 Buxton St., was creating an overwhelming smell in the neighborhood. The order accuses Jacques and a subcontractor of illegally dumping food scraps and other materials in violation of the town’s zoning ordinance.
Jacques has appealed the order, defending his composting business as a legally protected use under state law.
The dispute taps into a long-running argument about what constitutes “agriculture” and what kinds of farming operations should be allowed in residential areas. Jacques maintains his composting business is protected under the Right to Farm Act, a state law that protects farmers from nuisance complaints by neighbors. Jacques told The Valley Breeze in March he sees the order as “an attack on the fundamental right to compost” and thinks the town’s decision could have implications for farms across the state.
“If they can do that, what are the other towns going to do? They’re going to follow suit,” he said.
The Right to Farm Act has existed since the 1980s, when suburban development was seen as a threat to traditional farming operations. But neighbors of the Buxton Street property don’t think it should qualify for protection under the state law. Michael Phillips, one of several Buxton Street residents who met with The Breeze to discuss the issue in March, said it had been many years since the property had been used for farming when Jacques purchased it in 2002.
“You could argue that every land around here was a farm at one time,” he said.
Phillips was serving as the town planner in 2004 when Jacques applied for a permit to build a farm stand on the property. At the time, Jacques and his wife, Nancy, were planning to open a vineyard, plans Jacques said they later abandoned due to legal issues over the name of the winery.
Other neighbors said the smell has gotten worse since Jacques entered into an agreement with The Compost Plant, a Providence-based composting business, to bring in materials from around the state. Arnie D’Amico, another Buxton Street resident, said many of the neighbors have lived in the area far longer than the composting business and now can’t enjoy their yards because of the smell.
“Before this injunction happened, it was every day that it was vicious. You could cut it with a knife it was so strong,” he said.
Peg Votta, another resident who’s spoken out about the issue in recent months, said neighbors are prepared to hire a lawyer to pursue the matter.
Jacques said he’s been subject to repeated inspections by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and U.S. Department of Agriculture over the years and has never run into problems with state or federal officials. The property, he said, is licensed as a medium-scale composting operation by RIDEM’s Division of Agriculture.
According to information available on the RIDEM website, the state awards two types of licenses for “agricultural composting” and “solid waste composting facilities.” Those classified as agricultural are required to “minimize odors, noise, drift of materials and risk to humans or the environment.” Those classified as solid waste are subject to a stricter set of guidelines that includes agreeing not to create “objectionable odors” beyond the property line of the facility.
Neighbors have objected to the Buxton Street property’s agricultural classification, pointing out that most of the composted material is brought in from off the property.
Jacques said the town has set a tentative date of July 28 for the hearing, though that date could change in the weeks ahead. The issue has been complicated by COVID-19, which has delayed several town meetings or moved them to an online format.
Last week, the Town Council voted to hire attorney Stephen Angell and land use expert Edward Pimental to represent the town on the matter. If the Zoning Board votes to uphold the violation order, Jacques could appeal the matter in court, sparking a legal battle that could drag on for months or even years.
At least one member of the board won’t be voting on the appeal. Robert Najarian, Zoning Board chairman and a resident of Buxton Street, is one of the neighbors who submitted complaints to the town. In a letter to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission earlier this year, he indicated he plans to recuse himself from the discussion and asked whether he could address the board as a concerned resident.
While state law usually prohibits a public official from addressing their own board, in this case, the commission determined Najarian could appear before the board as long as he didn’t vote on the matter or use his position to influence the decision. In the past, the commission has granted “hardship” exceptions when a proposed project will directly affect a board member’s residential property.