Oak Bluffs Sign Off Didn't Follow Rules

By CHRIS BURRELL

An elected Oak Bluffs town official who is employed as operator of two municipal sewage treatment plants on the Island may have violated state environmental and ethics laws in the process of securing a septic permit this winter for his new house in Oak Bluffs.

Joseph N. Alosso, member of the board of health and operator of the wastewater treatment plants in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, denies any wrongdoing.

But a fellow board of health member said he signed off on Mr. Alosso's septic inspection without ever seeing the system before it was filled in - a requirement of state law.

Health board member William A. White signed his name on a building permit form Dec. 12, but told the Gazette yesterday that his inspection was perfunctory.

"I went over there to sign off," said Mr. White. "Joe said, ‘Here's the house. This is what the house is.' So I signed off."

Mr. White said he never saw the underground septic system. "It was already covered. This was after-the-fact," he added.

This is not the first time that permitting questions about Mr. Alosso's house have made news. Four months ago, Mr. Alosso's health board gave him permission to do something very few people in his neighborhood are able to do: install a four-bedroom septic on a 7,405 square foot lot.

Meanwhile, Mr. Alosso also took decisive steps last month to stop the board's own health agent, Shirley Fauteux, from posing questions to state environmental officials that could have shed light on such possible violations.

He urged the board of health to ban Ms. Fauteux from contacting the state department of environmental protection (DEP) without board approval unless there is a dire public health emergency. The board complied.

Mr. Alosso told the Gazette yesterday, "I don't think anything was done illegally, back-handed or anything else."

When asked by a reporter about the septic system at his Carole Lane house, Mr. Alosso initially offered Mr. White's signature on a building permit form as proof that he followed state codes.

But state environmental regulations require that septic systems be exposed in their entirety when they are inspected, before a certificate of compliance can be issued: "Subsurface components of a system shall not be backfilled or otherwise concealed from view until a final inspection has been conducted by the approving authority and permission has been granted by the approving authority to backfill the system."

Mr. Alosso later said his engineer had inspected the system.

Yet board of health files contain no records of such an inspection and no certificate of compliance, a document required by the state before homeowners can apply for an occupancy permit.

In December, Oak Bluffs building inspector Richard Mavro issued Mr. Alosso a temporary occupancy permit for the new house, even though Massachusetts environmental regulations state the following: "No person shall apply for a Certificate of Occupancy to inhabit or use new construction until a Certificate of Compliance has been issued by the approving authority."

Other Island towns follow this mandate.

Building inspectors and health agents in Edgartown, Tisbury and West Tisbury told the Gazette this week that no occupancy permits for single family homes are granted without a septic compliance certificate.

Back in Oak Bluffs, a lack of cooperation between the building department and the health department over the issue of septic certificates and occupancy permits prompted Ms. Fauteux to send a letter to the DEP.

Ms. Fauteux's letter, dated Dec. 29, asked a DEP official in Lakeville named Jeffrey Gould for an opinion on how building inspectors can issue occupancy permits without the required septic approvals.

It may have sounded like a reasonable request, but Mr. Alosso and other board members reacted sharply.

"She was told not to contact the DEP," said Mr. Alosso.

He cited minutes from a December meeting as evidence of such a directive to the health agent. But the minutes reflect no such order and show that Mr. Alosso was not even present at the meeting.

At a board of health meeting on Jan. 21, Mr. Alosso volunteered to draft a letter to the DEP asking the agency to "disregard the [Fauteux] letter." He also motioned that the health agent should not be allowed to contact the state environmental agency without board approval "unless there is a severe public health emergency." The measure passed unanimously, 3-0.

A week later, on Jan. 29, Mr. Alosso sent his own letter to Mr. Gould at the DEP, informing him that "all correspondence between our local Health Department and the Department of Environmental Protection will be done under the signature of the Board of Health Commissioners," effectively muzzling the health agent from any written contact with the state agency responsible for the laws she is charged with enforcing.

Part of her job description is acting as a liaison with state agencies.

Mr. Alosso denied that his interest in cutting off Ms. Fauteux's contact had anything to do with his own permitting issues for his new house. He said he wanted to handle the issue with the building department internally. "It was wrong of her to write that letter," he said. "It embarrasses the town when we run to the DEP for every little thing."

Health board chairman Sari Budrow also said her board's actions had no bearing on Mr. Alosso's property. "Everybody is taking this out of context," she said.

But the context in Mr. Alosso's case is hard to ignore; the permitting process for his new house has again come into question.

His property sits in a 1,148-acre swath of town designated in 1995 as a Zone 2, where strict state and local regulations protect the town drinking water supply and limit the number of bedrooms allowed on a parcel.

Mr. Alosso argued last fall that grandfathering allowed him to build a four-bedroom house on the tiny lot, although the paper trail in the Oak Bluffs assessor's office listed his former house - an 824 square foot ranch - as having only two bedrooms. But in Mr. Alosso's view, the extra two bedrooms in his basement brought the total number of bedrooms on his pre-existing house to four.

On Wednesday of this week, the building inspector issued Mr. Alosso a permanent occupancy permit.