Civil Rights

Race, politics and Covid collide at Barrington Zoning Board of Review

“To be honest with you, and we’ve had discussions about this – I’m not happy about going back to in person meetings anyway, right? … And the idea that someone shows up who’s been in a house with somebody who has Covid … it’s just bothering me.”
Photo for Race, politics and Covid collide at Barrington Zoning Board of Review

Published on October 19, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

Peter and Candace Breen are a mixed race couple that have lived in Barrington with their two children since July 2012. They and their neighbor, Laura Larivee, peacefully coexisted, without incident, for over eight years. But sometime in November 2020, the Breens say that Larivee began a series of provocative actions that the Breens saw as politically and racially motivated.

It started small, as when Larivee took her Trump/Pence sign off her front lawn and put it in the rear side window of her house facing the Breens’ backyard. She later replaced this with a sign that said “No Biden.” But after the failed January 6 insurrection, Larivee began flying the flag of the Pine Tree Party, an eco-fascist movement whose flag was carried by some insurrectionists. She also flew a flag in her backyard portraying former President Trump as Rambo. (Ironic given that Trump dodged the draft five times.)

In January, two weeks after the failed insurrection, Larivee allegedly delivered letters to three of her neighbors that said, among other things, “Democrats are disgusting filthy Americans you (sic) should pray for forgiveness and discernment.” The letter ended with a handwritten statement saying, “JAN 6 BLM + ANTIFA storm capitol proven on video – people arrested. Stop watching CNN you are brain dead. WAKE UP. You voted for communism you idiot!”

Larivee denies having delivered the letters.

Barrington Police Chief Dino DeCrescenzo, who stepped down in May, is quoted in the Barrington Times as saying he “can understand how Mrs Breen or anyone else could feel threatened by receiving a letter of this nature” and that to receive such a letter at home would be “disturbing.”

As the story became better known, the Breens suffered more harassment. On February 8 three teenagers yelled “racist, hateful words” as the walked past the Breen home. An attempt to secure a restraining order against Larivee failed in court.

On February 16 Uprise RI covered a Black Lives Matter rally in support of the Breen’s outside the Barrington Town Hall.

In the face of what the Breens saw as continuing online and in person harassment, Peter Breen installed four feet of latticework to the six foot stockade fence separating his yard from the Larivees’. [Note: Later this latticework was reduce to two feet, to keep it in line with an eight-for variance precedent in Barrington.] This is in technical violation of local zoning ordinances, so the Breens petitioned the Barrington Zoning Board of Review for a waiver.

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In her letters of opposition to the zoning waiver, Laura Larivee wrote, “I would like to set this record straight, there has been NO harassment of any kind by me or my family to Candace Breen. In fact it is just the opposite and it needs to stop…

“If anyone should be putting up a fence its me,” continued Larivee. “Candace misrepresented a situation to harrass me and my family and needs to stop wasting everyone’s time.”

It should be noted too that previous to her disagreements with the Breen family, Larivee had been targeted with a petition and protest by Black Lives Matter Rhode Island for videos on TikTok that included “disrespectful jabs at planned parenthood, BLM, social inequalities, and police brutality.”

This was the context for the Barrington Zoning Board of Review hearing held on September 23. But instead of hearing the case, the Zoning Board kicked Candace Breen and her lawyer out – over concerns about Covid.

On the Monday before the Thursday hearing, Peter Breen was diagnosed with Covid, and as a result was quarantining in the basement of the Breen home. Candace Breen and the children got Covid tests that came back negative. Since Peter Breen could not be present before the Zoning Board, Candace and the Breen’s lawyer, Anthony DeSisto, attended the meeting. The day before the hearing Candace Breen took a second Covid test that was also negative.

There is no video of this hearing, only very low-quality audio. It is difficult to know who from the board is speaking at times. Thomas Craig is the Chair. Douglas Caito, Ladd Meyer, David Rizzolo, Mark Freel and Michelle Turgeon were the members of the Zoning Board at the time of this hearing. Freel resigned from the board immediately following this hearing (see below).

Below is a partial transcript:

Chair Thomas Craig: This application is way out of the ordinary for us.

Attorney Anthony DeSisto: Peter Breen is not here, his wife Candace Green is with us here tonight. Mr Breen was unable to attend because he’s permanently isolated due to the fact that he’s been diagnosed with Covid.”

Boardmember: Is Mr Breen [here tonight?]

DeSisto: No, he’s in isolation.

Boardmember: Well, he’s in isolation now but – Listen, I don’t want to talk about the application now. We will, but it’s just bothering me that we went through all this trouble and all these rules and we’re all worried about this and now you’ve come, with an applicant who’s husband has been diagnosed with Covid and nobody here had any idea when her last [test] was and what his state of health was as of last time. It’s a little troubling.

Chair Craig: When did you test negative last?

Candace Breen: I had two tests. The last one I tested negative yesterday. I tested my children as well…

Chair Craig: Is he isolating?

Candace Breen: Yes.

Chair Craig: Since when?

Candace Breen: Since he was diagnosed he’s been in the basement.

Chair Craig: How long? Since when?

Candace Breen: Monday he went into the basement, the day he had his test.

Boardmember: I’m sorry I’m not hearing.

Candace Breen: Monday!

Boardmember: Of what week?

Candace Breen: This week.

Boardmember: And when were you last close to him?

Candace Breen: Monday morning I said Good Morning to him and he went go get tested. And when he came back the house was already set up for him to be in the basement.

Chair Craig: I share the concern… given that in sharing the house she did have a measure of exposure.

Boardmember: Absolutely. I’m not happy about – To be honest with you, and we’ve had discussions about this – I’m not happy about going back to in person meetings anyway, right? … And the idea that someone shows up who’s been in a house with somebody who has Covid … it’s just bothering me.

Boardmember (2?): I’m sorry to do this but I’ve had health issues of my own – based on what’s happening, I’m going to recuse … The whole situation is kind of nerve wracking…

Boardmember [To Attorney DeSisto]: I just think it’s bad judgement Tony, to be honest with you. Really bad judgement. I think it’s bad judgement on your part to bring somebody here under those circumstances and subject everybody in the room to it. It bothers me.

DeSisto: She tested negative recently…

Boardmember: I don’t think anything’s 100%.

[The board then moved to continue the matter until the next meeting.]

Boardmember (to DeSisto]: I just want to say for the record – I hate to admit this but I’m sure you recognize that you know, we’re in an age bracket and Paul’s leaving but we have the five people and the rest of us – this is damaging a whole roomful of people who showed up for other things and I have to say, I think it was a bad idea.

Chair Craig: Anyone else here on this application? I think the abutter has already left…

The abutter who just left was reportedly Laura Larrivee.

About 50 minutes later, during the same Zoning Board meeting, Katherine Quinn, an ally of the Breens, attempted to share the Covid guidelines from the Rhode Island Department of Health, with which Attorney Desisto and Candace Breen were in full compliance. The Zoning Board shut Quinn down completely, saying the issue was already decided.

In his resignation letter to the Barrington Zoning Board of Review, Mark Freel wrote about his desire to not deal with issues of race, politics and Covid:

“I feel that the State pushed us back into mandatory in-person meetings too soon and there are ongoing pitfalls to that, as evidenced by the incident at our meeting last Thursday night. I have struggled with that, and with the associated personal stress, especially on nights when we have larger audiences.”

Freel goes onto write:

“Secondly, perhaps it’s the lawyer in me, but I have always enjoyed the work of the Zoning Board because it involves clear decisions, based on evidence, and based on the application of objective rules. We do have some subjective discretion, but we make decisions, not policy. In recent months, however, it feels to me like an increasing number of our applications involve heated disputes between neighbors, people wanting to put up higher walls between them and their neighborhoods, and people who bristle at the application of the rules. And now we have even faced issues of race and politics, and arguments about COVID. Those are unfortunately inescapable parts of the world we live in, but not anything that I want to deal with at Zoning Board meetings. It has tried my patience at times, and I freely admit that.”

This Thursday, October 21, 2021, the Breens will once again be going before the Barrington Zoning Board of Review. There is expected to be much more public support for the Breens at this hearing: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2021, AT 7:00 P.M. COUNCIL CHAMBERS – BARRINGTON TOWN HALL, 2ND FLOOR 283 COUNTY ROAD, BARRINGTON, RI 02806. Here’s the agenda.

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