Masons Island neighbors say Enders Island not playing by rules by holding non-religious events

Masons Island neighbors say Enders Island not playing by rules by holding non-religious events

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MYSTIC — Several Masons Island residents are appealing some of the findings in the Department of Planning’s Jan. 11 report concerning zoning compliance on Enders Island. 

Penelope Townsend and Hugh and Pamela McGee have hired Diane Whitney, an attorney with offices in Hartford, to represent their claim that St. Edmunds of Connecticut, a Catholic retreat center that occupies Enders Island, is using the island for commercial activities that are not central to the religious purpose as it was originally defined. 

The town’s report found that the property is in compliance with the Town of Stonington’s zoning regulations as a pre-existing, legal, non-conforming use as a place of worship and a retreat facility. The Society of St. Edmund acquired Enders Island on Jan. 8, 1954, predating the town’s zoning laws, which began in 1961. Enders Island was zoned as residential in 1961, as was Masons Island, but under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, religious activities are considered a legal, nonconforming use. 

Whitney said her clients have no objection to activities directly related to Enders Island’s religious mission.

But, her clients do object to what they consider as commercial activities, such as running a bed-and-breakfast and a facility for young men recovering from addiction as well as offering the space for private, non-religious meetings for businesses and organizations. Whitney said Enders Island is also rented out as a conference center and used for catered lunches, cocktail parties and dinners, for Fairfield University’s creative writing workshops and events and for private yoga events. 

“I think there are many activities here that are open to the question, is it central to their religious mission? Where is the line between the religious and the nonreligious? That would be a good way to define it,” she said.  

The town’s report stated any activities related to the property’s core purpose as a place of worship and a retreat facility are in compliance with the town’s zoning regulations. “The retreat facility has lodging, dining events, meetings, offices, private spaces, off-street parking, assembly spaces, conferences, passive recreation, gift shop, public access, and active recreation, all of which are in complaince with the history of Enders Island, as documented through many sources,” the report stated. 

Whitney’s clients are also concerned about the noise and traffic associated with Enders Island, which has increased over the years, she said. 

“By St. Edmunds’ own conclusions, they are now drawing in excess of 17,000 people a year to Enders Island, and that really changes the character of Masons Island because they have to go through Masons Island to get to Enders Island and has resulted in serious traffic problems, which are serious safety problems, and wear and tear to the roads and just changing the quiet, residential nature of Mason’s Island,” Whitney said. “Some people on Mason’s Island have said when they try to get out of their own driveway on a Sunday morning to go to their church off of Masons Island, it’s a very long wait because of all the traffic going through to Enders Island.” 

Whitney acknowledged the problem of Sunday morning traffic might not change since having a religious service on Enders Island is a permitted use, but ceasing commercial activities would result in less traffic overall. 

She said her clients were appealing the town’s report because they believe their questions have not been answered in the past. 

“Perhaps by going this route, we can get some answers and also arrive at a conclusion that can be well-documented and can hold for the future so that people don’t continue to have these issues,” Whitney said. “I hope we can get together and negotiate some kind of understanding about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed; this does not have to be adversarial and we prefer that it wasn’t.” 

The appeal is listed on the Zoning Board of Appeals’ Tuesday agenda; the meeting will be held at the Stonington Police Station at 7 p.m.


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