Stonington now a defendant in retreat center lawsuit
Mystic — A group of Masons Island homeowners have amended their lawsuit that seeks to restrict the current use of the St. Edmund’s Retreat Center by asking a judge to declare that the activities taking place there violate both Stonington zoning regulations and the restrictions placed on the land by the woman who donated it.
They have also added the Stonington Zoning Board of Appeals as a defendant in the case after the ZBA earlier this year agreed not to hold a public hearing on an appeal from Hugh and Pamela McGee and Penelope Townsend. The three disagreed with a report by the Stonington Department of Planning that the retreat center is not violating zoning regulations.
The ZBA’s decision came after members felt that they did not have jurisdiction to hear an appeal on an interdepartmental report about an investigation into complaints by island residents.
The town was served with the revised complaint last week. The group filing the amended lawsuit consists of Hugh McGee, Daniel H. Van Winkle, Kay G. Tower, Sara H. Lathrop, Lydia H. Herd, Michael R. Deangelis, Bartholomew Chamberlain and Peter Battles. Townsend, who was part of the original suit, has been removed as a complainant. They are represented by attorney Diane Whitney of Hartford.
The revised suit, as did the original complaint, charges that St. Edmund’s has turned Enders Island into a site of bustling commercial activity far beyond anything allowed in the residential zone where it is located and in flagrant violation of the restrictions placed on it by the woman who donated Enders Island to the Society of St. Edmund.
It charges the illegal activity “causes injury to the Plaintiffs and adversely affects their residential property.”
Those visiting Enders Island must drive though Masons Island and use a causeway to reach the retreat center. The residents say the additional traffic on the narrow road and drivers speeding and under the influence cause unsafe conditions and interfere with their “abilities to acess their own homes, disturb the peace and quiet of Masons Island, and alter the quiet residential nature of the neighborhood.”
They also are appealing a decision by the ZBA to not consider their appeal of a report by Stonington Director of Planning Jason Vincent that no violations are occuring on the island.
As they did in the first complaint, they continue to ask that a permanent injunction be issued restraining St. Edmund’s from continuing to conduct activities on Enders Island that violate local zoning regulations and that do not conform with the wishes of the late Alys Enders, who donated the island to the society.
In the suit, Whitney pointed out that before she died in 1954, Enders conveyed Enders Island by quit claim deed to the Society of St. Edmund Inc. with the restriction that the island be used as a novitiate for the society and as a retreat for the priests of the Diocese of Norwich.
“The deed also provided that upon the failure of the Society of St. Edmunds to use the property solely as so restricted, Enders Island shall go to the residual heirs and legatees which included individuals and institutions,” wrote Whitney.
In 1954 there was no zoning, but when zoning was established in 1961 and then amended in 1977, religious use of the now residentially zoned island became a legal non-conforming use. State law typically prohibits expansion of a legal non-conforming use.
But the suit points out that over the years the need for a retreat for priests has declined and St. Edmund’s has been offering many commercial activities. Earlier this year, some Masons Island residents, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince zoning officials to take action against the center, said it has grown into a resort.
The suit states the retreat center now offers nonreligious businesses and organizations the opportunity to hold their meetings, fairs, seminars and retreats, including overnight accommodations, at a cost. It also operates a catering operation, The Catholic Psych Institute, a gift shop, a substance abuse recovery center for young men, the Institute of Sacred Arts and various Twelve Step Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
The suit also states that numerous secular activities are held on Enders Island every year, including writing seminars, garden club cocktail parties, weddings and funeral receptions, crafts fairs, bead fairs, and fundraising dinners.
“The Retreat advertises and promotes its facilities commercially as a destination for vacationers, as a bed and breakfast facility, as a business retreat, and as a destination for picnics and water-related sports, encouraging the use of Enders Island as a public park,” states the suit.
While residents have questioned the legality of the center in the past, the latest complaints came after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the retreat center said they were considering the replacement of a deteriorating 700-foot-long seawall that protects Enders Island from storms.
Vincent’s report found that the buildings at the retreat center are all legally nonconforming, conforming or have variances for items such as yard setbacks, floor area ratio and height. It also pointed out that the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protects individuals and religious institutions from discriminatory and unduly burdensome land-use regulations. As a federal civil rights law, the report states the act’s protections trump any locally enacted zoning regulations. The residents have disagreed with that interpretation and say the report contains errors.