Neighbors appeal Enders Island zoning ruling

Mystic _ Three Masons Island residents have appealed a ruling by the Stonington Department of Planning that the St. Edmund Retreat Center is not violating zoning regulations.

Hugh and Pamela McGee and Penelope Townsend have filed an appeal of the planning department's January report with the Stonington Zoning Board of Appeals. The appeal is on the board’s agenda for it’s 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday night at the Stonington police station at which time the board is expected to set a public hearing date on the appeal. 

The planning department's review was prompted by four complaints from Masons Island residents last summer that the Society of St. Edmund has gone far beyond its original intent and actually is operating a type of resort. 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 sea wall that protects Enders Island from storms.

The report found that the buildings 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 RLUIPA protections trump any locally enacted zoning regulations.

But the residents’ appeal states that the report misrepresents the provisions of the RLUIPA, thereby allowing uses on the property that violate zoning regulations. They also charge the report contains errors and omissions as to the activities occurring on the island.

The appeal states while the property has been zoned for residential use since the inception of zoning in town, it is now being uses for a variety of commercial uses that “are not central to the religious purpose of the current owner of the property.”

It further states that the current use is best described as a conference center which is not allowed under current or past zoning of the island.

It lists some of the current uses as a bed and breakfast operation, a substance abuse recovery residence, a venue for non religious groups to hold meetings, parties and   dinners, yoga events, a college writing workshop, wedding and funeral receptions and psychiatric counseling center, all generating 17,000 cars a year on the narrow roads of Masons Island. It also points out it is not the intention of the appeal to interfere with the religious mission of Enders Island.

The appeal also states the RLUIPA does not mean religious organizations are exempt from zoning restrictions but that zoning regulations be appled equally and fairly so as not to impinge on the exercise of religion.

 

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