Report: St. Edmund Retreat Center in Mystic not violating zoning rules

A group of Masons Island residents is fighting plans to replace this deteriorating sea wall on Enders Island. A new report says the longtime religious retreat is not violating town zoning regulations. (Joe Wojtas/The Day)
A group of Masons Island residents is fighting plans to replace this deteriorating sea wall on Enders Island. A new report says the longtime religious retreat is not violating town zoning regulations. (Joe Wojtas/The Day)

Stonington — After an extensive review, town planning officials have issued a detailed report that finds the St. Edmund Retreat Center on Masons Island is not violating local zoning regulations.

The review was prompted by four complaints from Masons Island residents this summer. While residents have questioned the legality of the center in the past, the latest complaints came after it was revealed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the retreat center were considering the replacement of a deteriorating 700-foot-long sea wall that protects Enders Island from storms.

Some critics of the center point to its advertising and claim the Society of St. Edmund has gone far beyond its original intent and actually is operating a type of resort resulting in increased traffic on the roads on Masons Island that lead to the causeway to Enders Island.

The report states that on July 30, 2017, First Selectman Rob Simmons received correspondence from Penelope Townsend of Masons Island, who alleged that the activities on Enders Island did not comply with zoning regulations and the town was ignoring the apparent violations. Three other letters followed.

The report states that on Aug. 17, 2017, Director of Planning Jason Vincent and zoning official Candace Palmer toured Enders Island and “did not observe any activity that appeared to be in violation of zoning during that inspection. ...”

“However, we felt there was a need to investigate the full details of the history of Enders Island to provide context as to how this facility operates in the face of what appears to be a direct violation of Town of Stonington laws,” Vincent added.

This was a reference to the fact that a retreat center is not allowed under the current RC-120 zoning where Enders Island is located. The retreat center, though, developed across three different zoning designations that have governed the island since the retreat center, which predates zoning regulations there, was founded in 1954. No zoning regulations were in effect until 1961.

The report explains that while an activity might not be found in the town’s zoning regulations, it may be enabled under other laws or regulations.

“It could have a state or federal protection, resulted from litigation, or received permits under a prior version of the regulations. The obvious answer is often not the correct answer,” the report states.

It adds, that “some of the Town’s Zoning Regulations, while well intentioned, may not be legally authorized in light of this overall framework. It is important to understand how an enforcement action is going to be adjudicated if the property owner appeals the Town Official’s determination. A law enforcement strategy that is conducted irrespective of the implications of the outcome of the decision is a risky endeavor for the community. Therefore, it is critical that there is a compelling governmental interest and basis for which to act.”

The report details all of the uses of the property over time, their history and responds to each alleged violation. In summary, the town found that the property is in compliance with local zoning regulations because it is a pre-existing, "legal nonconforming use: place of worship (assembly) / retreat facility with off‐street parking.”

The town also found that the buildings are all legally nonconforming, conforming or have variances for items such as yard setbacks, floor area ratio and height.

Finally, the report points out that the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protects individuals and religious institutions from discriminatory and unduly burdensome land use regulations. It states that the U.S. Department of Justice has ruled that the law protects the exercise of religious assemblies and institutions in addition to individuals and this extends to operations such as religious schools, religious retreat centers, faith-based homeless shelters, soup kitchens, group homes, and other social services.”

As a federal civil rights law, RLUIPA protections trump any locally enacted zoning regulations, the report states.

“Towns seeking to limit the activities of religious institutions have frequently been struck down by this law. A town seeking enforcement actions against a religious institution is wise to do so only in clear-cut cases, to limit (exposure) to a civil rights violation,” according to the report.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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