Enders Island Retreat Seeks Affordable Housing Grant to Build New Septic System, Faces Legal Challenge

Enders Island (Army Corps of Engineers)

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STONINGTON — St. Edmund’s Retreat, an addiction recovery program on Enders Island, which has faced years of opposition from neighbors and an heir to Alys Enders, will go to hearing on Wednesday to discuss plans to fund a new septic system through a block grant intended for developing affordable housing.

Neighbors and an heir of Alys Enders say plans for the retreat are at odds with the will of Alys Enders, which left the parcel of land for novitiate training or as a retreat for priests from the Diocese of Norwich.

The hearing, scheduled for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the town’s District Office, 40 Field Street, Pawcatuck, will be held by the Board of Selectmen to solicit public input on the $600,000 Community Development Block Grant.

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Susan Cullen, director of economic and community development for the town, explained that because the participants in program earn less than $10,000 a year, below the 25 percent threshold for Area Median Income, the retreat is eligible for the affordable housing grant.

Father Tom Hoar, retreat director at St. Edmund’s, said St. Edmunds Retreat is a “recovering community” that can house a maximum of 12 men.

“All the guys in our recovery community have no money and the way we’re able to take care of them is by fundraising, and generosity of supportive folks. If they weren’t with us, they’d probably be on the street somewhere because they’ve gone through detox and rehab,” he said. “Our program helps them repair the wreckage of their past and gives them a path towards a healthy, balanced productive life.” 

According to the grant application, the purpose of the project is to repair and replace portions of the existing system which is prone to storm surge with a central, advanced septic system that significantly decreases nitrogen and pollutants.

Hoar said that the $1.25 million septic system will be funded through a combination of grants. 

But according neighbors, the retreat holds business meetings, seminars, and parties on the island that fail to comply with Alys Enders’ will, which included two deed restrictions: that the property was solely for novitiate training or as a retreat for priests from the Diocese of Norwich.

“One of the people leading the battle has been suing us since 2018 just because we exist and they don’t like our traffic. We only account for 23% of the traffic on Masons Island,” said Hoar. “We’ve had so many court mandated mediation sessions and they want to restrict the number of people coming to church, they want to restrict the number of people that come to AA meetings, it’s just perplexing.”

Hoar said that the nearby Masons Island Yacht Club has big events and weddings that last late into the evening, but the neighbors who are suing the retreat have not made a complaint against the club. 

The group of neighbors, who will likely take the matter to court next year, disagreed with a 2017 report by the town’s zoning department and Jason Vincent, director of planning for the town at the time, concluding that the retreat was a legal non-conforming, pre-existing use. The group also disagreed with the 2018 decision of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals not to hold a public hearing on the group’s appeal of the conclusions of the report. 

In addition, Hoar said, the retreat’s 700-foot seawall replacement project is on hold because of lawsuits. 

To move forward with the project the Army Corps of Engineers needs a clear title to the property, but the heirs have retained “reversionary interest” rights. The retreat center obtained quit claims from 33 heirs – which left the Girls Scouts of America, Mystic Seaport, and one great-grand-nephew, John Steffian Jr., as holdouts. 

Hoar said the retreat came to an agreement with the Girl Scouts and the Seaport, who each receive their 1.25 percent if the island is ever sold for profit. 

But the great-grand nephew, who has 3.125 percent of Enders’ estate, has refused to sign a quitclaim, and the matter will go to trial in December at the Court of Complex Litigation in Waterbury, said Hoar. 

“The seawall never got built – we’re still waiting. The Army Corps is ready to move forward once we have 100 percent,” Hoar said.