By Gene Bifano
Rebuffed is a good choice of words, rebuked may be better. The article some weeks back titled “Warren Constable Rebuffed,” lacks some clarity and accuracy.
First, I acted as a town police officer/constable, not as a neighbor. That was clearly stated at Town Meeting and a written report to the select board.
Chronologic order of events:
When walking my dogs in September, I noticed a road being built; there was no building permit sign displayed. I went to the zoning administrator and advised her of the new construction and no building permit displayed. She said she was not aware of any permit and to keep them informed.
I noticed whoever was doing the road work was leaving an open fire unattended. I notified the fire warden. He said he would speak with the individual.
I left my town constable business card on the excavator asking the individual to contact me or the zoning administrator for clarification as to what was being done. No response.
From the middle of September to October 6, I had numerous conversations with the zoning administrator about what was occurring on the site. Not once was I advised to stop or told a permit was issued. The zoning administrator said she might take make a site visit. I said I could speak with the logger and ask him to call the zoning administrator to save the zoning administrator a hike through the woods. There was no disagreement with that, I followed up.
Using the skills, I’ve learned to avoid confrontation with de-escalation techniques, I chose to use a more neighborly tactic. I did not wear my uniform. I wore my hiking clothes and took my two dogs. Basically, I was in plainclothes.
I approached the logger and identified myself as a town police officer/first constable. I advised him, based on my conversations with the zoning administrator, that we believe he was being asked to do things that may not be within Warren’s zoning laws. And asked him to have to his boss contact the zoning administrator. I gave him my Warren constable business card.
Subsequently, I received a call from the zoning administrator who said the owner had a conditional use permit and could log about seven acres of woods on the hillside above Brook Road. Everything was straightened out. The logging continued to mid-October, then stopped.
On November 15, the new landowner sent a letter to the select board with a copy of a previously filed conditional use permit that came with his purchase of the land.
He stated: “On October 6, our logger was approached by an individual who represented himself as an official of the town of Warren who suggested the tree removal and driveway was being done without approval or permits. The gentlemen’s name is Gene Bifano. Our concern is that someone claiming to be acting in an official capacity on behalf of the town of Warren regarding a zoning or building department would be asking questions outside their responsibility or legal authority, specifically when we are not present. We would appreciate your guidance on how best to address this issue and ensure that this type of intrusion does not happen again.”
A month later I was invited to a select board meeting to address a complaint against me. I requested a copy of the complaint that was made. I provided the select board with an incident report before the meeting.
As it turned out the meeting was to be a rebuff, for interfering with the zoning/planning process and being unneighborly.
Almost two months had passed since the simple, “Please have your boss call the zoning administrator.”
At the meeting the zoning administrator stated that the landowner was operating outside the conditional use permit or words to that effect. Subsequently, there was a comment that the new landowner may have jumped the gun. Work was halted until a further review could be done.
It seems to me the select board could have had an offline discussion with the zoning administrator and myself. They would been assured I that I was not acting independently. A letter to the landowner stating that our town police officer/constable was working with the zoning administrator and not independently would probably have put this issue to rest.
To sum things up:
- I broke no town, state or federal laws.
- I took no law enforcement action other than ask the logger to “please have his boss call the zoning administrator.” In reality, asking as a police officer probably had more impact than an ordinary citizen making the same request.
- I never meet the new landowner and didn’t know who he was until his letter to the select board. I don’t believe I was unneighborly to him or the logger.
- The unattended burning stopped.
- It is my understanding the work being done outside the scope of the conditional use permit also stopped
- Although, it is not traditional for police to investigate zoning issues, I believe that if anyone is obligated to inform someone they may be doing something illegal it is a police officer.
The only reason I knew about this issue is that the land being developed is near my home and a place we hike with our dogs. I do not go around looking for zoning violations.
Another not so obvious fact is that every citizen, despite the landowner’s contention, has the right to question what’s going on in their neighborhood and to report their observation to whatever department that may be involved and to help that department in any reasonable way.
Police departments rely on people in neighborhoods to keep them informed of issues within the neighborhood. Same goes for other town departments -- highway, fire, zoning, etc. It would seem to me that in small towns with limited resources, cooperation between departments and citizens would enable things to operate more effectively.
At the end of the select board meeting on this issue the comment was – “No harm -- No foul.”
Bifano lives in Warren.