Alternative Septic System on Enders Island Awaits Regulatory Approval, Neighbors Continue to Object

Enders Island (Army Corps of Engineers)

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STONINGTON — An advanced alternative septic system never before installed in Connecticut is under regulatory consideration for St. Edmund’s Retreat on Enders Island.

If approved by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the $1.25 million project will include an environmental “recirculating” system made by Septitech and a new leaching field underneath the parking lot at the retreat. 

The new system would replace and consolidate the retreat’s five separate septic systems currently in operation, which are aging and out of date, said Father Thomas Hoar, director of the retreat.  

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Sergio Cherenzia, the engineer on the project, told CT Examiner he has not permitted this system in Connecticut but he has overseen multiple large-scale installations in Rhode Island at Seaside Beach Club and Ocean House Hotel Partners in Westerly, Hopkinton Office Park in Hopkinton and the Village at Potter Pond in South Kingstown, among others. 

Cherenzia said the system “offers a much higher level of treatment” compared to a conventional septic system. 

“It knocks down biological oxygen demand, VODS, total suspended solids, TSS and nitrogen which is a big deal, especially in coastal pond environments,” he said. 

He said that the DEEP is the regulating agency for projects with flows greater than 7,500 gallons per day and that this project is estimated at 18,000 gallons per day. He said DEEP also regulates advanced or pre-treatment systems, community systems and alternative systems. 

“We’re hitting basically all three of those on this project – I would say this is like a small community system, we’re over the 7,500 gallons per day and we’re utilizing alternative treatment,” he said. 

Paul Copleman, a spokesperson for DEEP, told CT Examiner that the agency has participated in pre-application meetings for the Enders Island project. 

“Ultimately, they will need to submit an application, during which time we would evaluate the technology they’re proposing. It’s difficult to project what a timeline might look like until we’ve received a formal application and have a complete understanding of the needs of the technical review, but we would expect it would likely take at least a year,” he said in an email. 

Andrew Woodstock, senior project manager with Eastern Connecticut Housing Opportunities, Inc., who is the grant administrator for the project, told CT Examiner that the technology can be scaled up or down depending on the capacity needed – but an adequate leaching field is still necessary and may prevent usage on small parcels. 

“This system basically clarifies the effluent coming out of the tank to a much higher level, which should result in a reduction in the leaching area. But, I doubt DEEP is going to allow a significant reduction in the leaching and that’s what’s going to kill this on multiple applications.”

Support and opposition

About 60 people attended a public hearing for a community grant that will partially fund an advanced septic system at St. Edmund’s Retreat on Enders Island. (CT Examiner)

At a public hearing attended by about 60 people last week, the Board of Selectmen unanimously approved a $600,000 Community Development Block Grant application for the project. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has provided a $625,000 grant, bringing total funding to $1.25 million, according to Father Hoar.

At the hearing, Susan Cullen, director of economic and community development for the town, said the town had received 64 letters in support, nine letters in opposition and seven letters with questions. 

She said many of the questions pertained to zoning issues at Enders Island, which some neighbors have disputed for years and is the subject of litigation.

The 11-acre island is accessible by causeway only from Masons Island.

At the hearing, Cathy Marco, a resident of Masons Island told the Board of Selectmen that residents of the Masons Island pay an additional tax to maintain the roads that St. Edmund’s does not pay. She said that the septic system capacity was geared toward much higher usage than the current demand, which could mean an increase in traffic. 

“If it’s appropriate to support other activities, it will cause excess demand on the roads,” she said. 

Fred Deichman, a Masons Island resident, said the capacity of the proposed system is far in excess of the number of residents on the island and questioned what he said was an enlargement of the parking lot.

Frank Marco, a resident of Masons Island, questioned whether the septic system should be funded publicly and echoed Deichman and Cathy’s Marco’s question about the need for more capacity.

“Will there be an expansion of use – currently it’s 12 men, or is it 19, in recovery? The new system capacity is for 18,000 gallons per day, but right now the recovery program uses 2,860 gallons per day,” he said. “Take the money and use it toward the homeless in Stonington.”

Patricia Reardon of Masons Island said there had been break-ins and she wanted the town to ensure the safety of Masons Island residents. 

Sarah Lathrop said that there are the two litigations pending – one with the Girl Scouts concerning residuary rights and one with Hugh McGee and other neighbors concerning zoning violation. She questioned whether the town had listed the lawsuits on the application as required. Later, Frank Marco also questioned what will happen to the grant funds if litigation is successful. 

Cullen clarified that the town must disclose if it has litigation with Enders Island and the Retreat, which it is does not. The litigation in progress is civil in nature, Cullen said. 

Hoar said the issue of residuary rights with the Girl Scouts had been solved, however a nephew of Alyce Enders has not signed a quit claim to his 3.1875 percent residuary rights.

“We own 96.8125 percent of the reversionary interest,” he said. “So there is no possibility that we will lose the title to the island.”

In favor of the project was Barry Saluk, a resident of Masons Island, who said that the algae blooms in the surrounding water had decreased water quality. “I’m 100 percent in favor of clean water,” he said. 

Kate Careb, chair of the board of St. Edmund’s Retreat emphasized that the project was an opportunity to do a sustainable project. “We want the opportunity to discuss the project in the future with people who are concerned,” she said. 

Town Councilor Deborah Downey, who has a masters in hydrogeology, said she had familiarity with groundwater impacts on the Sound.

She said the town and the retreat could continue with the status quo, but the grant provided an opportunity to enhance environmental health.

“This is a proactive project, the septics are not failing now. It’s a way to do something to improve the water quality of the Sound in our town,” she said. 

“There are zoning issues and litigation issues,” she said. “But the big picture here is do we take this opportunity to use money for this pilot program —that we know has worked in other states to improve the water quality — in a place that will continue to operate, if we don’t improve this, with septic systems that are old, some dating from the 1920s and the newest one is 20 years old.” 

Councilor June Strunk said that eventually the septic systems on Enders Island will need to be replaced – regardless of the success or failure of litigation or who owns the property.

“If we can get it done now and get the water quality improved sooner rather than later, then I don’t see why we shouldn’t do that,” she said. 

Danielle Chesebrough, First Selectman, said she believed in the environmental importance of the project and that she had listened the concerns of the residents concerning zoning and other topics, but that it was important to follow the governance process for the grant. 

“A lot of the concerns that were raised that are outside of zoning are really up to the state to decide. There’s an entire very qualified team of experts at CDBG from the Commissioner of Housing downwards who will be looking at this application and going through a lot of the same questions you raised,” she said. “But if we stop this process then we’d be stopping an important part of this governance and the process that our democracy has set up.” 

After further objections from residents concerning zoning, Chesebrough emphasized that those questions were out of the purview of the Board of Selectmen and needed to be directed to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The council voted unanimously to approve the application and award the bid to Eastern Connecticut Housing Opportunities, inc., known as ECHO, as CDBG consultant.