Mystic residents file suit to limit use of St. Edmund's Retreat

Mystic — A group of Masons Island homeowners have filed a lawsuit in New London Superior Court seeking to restrict the current use of the St. Edmund’s Retreat Center.

The suit 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. 

Those visiting Enders Island must drive though Masons Island and use a causeway to reach the retreat center.

Attorney Diane Whitney of Hartford filed the lawsuit on behalf of Hugh P. McGee Jr., Daniel H. Van Winkle, Kay G. Tower, Sara H. Lathrop, Lydia H. Herd, Michael R. Deangelis and Penelope Townsend.

In the suit, Whitney pointed out that before she died in 1954, Alys E. 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.

The suit also states that numerous secular activities are held on Enders Island every year, including writing seminars, garden club cocktail parties, private wedding and funeral receptions, crafts fairs, bead fairs, and private 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.

It also states the retreat center reported in 2016 that 17,000 people visit each year, all of whom use the narrow, one-lane road through Masons Island, creating a safety problem for residents. The suit also charges that some visiting the island are driving under the influence and that the island’s parking and septic system are inadequate for its number of visitors.

It asks 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 Alys Enders.

The Rev. Thomas Hoar, the president of St. Edmund's Retreat, said Sunday he was saddened by the lawsuit as he thought the issue had been covered by a town report on the issue. He added the retreat center has always tried to be a good neighbor.

"Unfortunately we've been here since 1954 and some people who have not been here that long don't like what we are doing," he said, pointing out that those who filed the suit are just a small fraction of those who live on the island.

"From our point of view, (the suit) is time, energy and money, but it won't stop us from doing the good work that we do," he said.

Earlier this month, Stonington Zoning Board of Appeals members agreed not to hold a public hearing on an appeal from Hugh and Pamela McGee and Penelope Townsend, who disagree with a report by the Stonington Department of Planning that the retreat center is not violating zoning regulations.

The board’s decision came after members felt that they did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal on an interdepartmental report about an investigation into complaints by island residents. That left the residents with the option of seeking enforcement by filing an action in Superior Court.

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.

The extensive town 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.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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