State Finds Code Infractions in Oak Bluffs

By CHRIS BURRELL

An eight-month investigation by the state's environmental enforcement agency has confirmed that the Oak Bluffs board of health and a Tisbury engineering firm violated several state health regulations when they signed septic permits for a new house belonging to Joseph N. Alosso, an Island official in charge of two municipal sewage treatment plants on the Vineyard.

At the time permits were issued last year, Mr. Alosso was a member of the Oak Bluffs board of health as well as the board's former chairman. He is currently employed as the chief operator of the Oak Bluffs wastewater treatment plant and the facilities manager of the sewage treatment plant serving Edgartown.

The investigation by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into the septic system at Mr. Alosso's new four-bedroom house in Oak Bluffs began last winter after the DEP received a complaint about the property.

Last week, David Ferris, the acting director of watershed permitting in Boston for the DEP, sent a letter to the Oak Bluffs board of health, faulting the board and two engineers at Schofield, Barbini & Hoehn, Inc. in Tisbury for failing to follow state environmental laws.

Mr. Ferris concluded that a four-bedroom septic system should never have been allowed on the property at 53 Carol Lane, a 7,405-square-foot lot located in a nitrogen-sensitive section of town governed by strict regulations.

"The system design should have been limited to one serving a three-bedroom house," Mr. Ferris wrote.

The complete text of the letter is published on the commentary page in today's Gazette.

Mr. Ferris cited numerous other failures to enforce state environmental codes, including:

* The Oak Bluffs board of health approved a septic permit for their fellow board member in August of 2003 - more than two weeks before a soil evaluation and percolation test was conducted. State regulations require a successful percolation test before a permit can be granted.

* The septic leaching field fell within 10 feet of a neighboring property - requiring a formal variance for approval - but the board of health didn't bother to require one and the engineers made no mention of it on official documents.

* Plans submitted by the engineers in July 2003 and approved by the board of health stated that a garbage grinder was allowed under the design even though state regulations prohibit garbage disposals for the septic system as it was designed.

* The septic system was backfilled and covered before it could be inspected and prior to the issuance of a certificate of compliance, all in violation of state health codes.

Mr. Ferris instructed the board of health to contact the septic system designers and "require them to correct all of the design plan deficiencies."

The letter stopped short of enacting any fines or penalties, but a spokesman for the DEP in the Lakeville office said yesterday the case remains "enforcement sensitive," meaning Mr. Alosso could still face fines and penalties.

Last June, the DEP sent Mr. Alosso a draft consent decree, a sternly worded 10-page letter detailing a series of alleged violations surrounding the installation of the septic system at his house.

Mr. Alosso, who denied any wrongdoing when news of the DEP investigation surfaced in June, declined to comment yesterday when reached on the telephone by the Gazette.

Board of health chairman William White did not return telephone calls from the Gazette yesterday, and principals at Schofield, Barbini & Hoehn could not be reached for comment.

The DEP letter informed engineers at the firm - Richard Barbini and Christopher Alley - that the investigation findings had been forwarded to the state licensing board for professional engineers and land surveyors.

The crux of the DEP investigation centered on the issue of bedrooms.

Mr. Alosso told his colleagues at the board of health last year when he applied for a septic permit for his new house that he was simply replacing a preexisting 824-square-foot ranch house with four bedrooms.

But after examining building records and documents at the Oak Bluffs board of assessors, DEP investigators concluded that the house never contained more than three bedrooms, at most.

The difference is crucial. The section of town where Mr. Alosso's house is located is designated as Zone 2, where strict state and local regulations protect the town drinking water supply.

Under Zone 2 regulations, Mr. Alosso would never have been allowed to build a four-bedroom house on such a small parcel - unless a four-bedroom house had previously existed on the site.

Zone 2 rules limit the number of bedrooms allowed on an area of land and control the nitrogen loading from septic tanks and cesspools. The formula for construction in Zone 2 is prohibitive, allowing just one bedroom per quarter-acre of land, roughly 10,000 square feet.

Oak Bluffs assessors counted two bedrooms in Mr. Alosso's old house, but a special notation mentioned two other bedrooms in the basement.

Last October, Oak Bluffs assessor Dianne Wilson told the Gazette, "Below grade, you don't count bedrooms."

Basement bedrooms are subject to very specific state building codes, mandating that the maximum height of window sills be 44 inches above the floor and the windows should measure at least 20 by 24 inches in size.

No records exist at either the board of health or the building department about additional bedrooms in the house at 53 Carol Lane. The last time assessors actually inspected the property was in 1988.

The previous owner of the house - Patricia Downey of North Quincy - told the Gazette last fall that in 1995 when she sold the house to Mr. Alosso, it was a two-bedroom ranch.

Records show that Mr. Alosso went to the board of assessors a month after he received the draft consent decree from the DEP, to try to fix his problem. According to minutes of a July 8 meeting of the board of assessors: "Joe Alosso presented a letter that he wanted the board to endorse regarding his problem with the DEP."

The chairman of the Oak Bluffs board of assessors, Jesse Law 3rd, sent a letter one day later to the senior counsel at the DEP in Boston, affirming the existence of two bedrooms below grade for a total of four bedrooms in the house.

An earlier draft of the July 8 letter described some uncertainty about the extra two-bedroom notation. "When that note was added to the record and by who is unknown at this time. Our current assessor has no recollection of actually adding this note to the Alosso card," the letter from assessors stated.

The controversy over Mr. Alosso's septic system may have played a role in his defeat last April when he sought another term on the board of health. An outspoken former selectman, Linda Marinelli, beat Mr. Alosso 721-662.

It's unclear whether the DEP will formalize last June's draft consent decree against Mr. Alosso, but one Oak Bluffs selectman is already raising concerns about the issue.

"I'm reassured that it's being looked at by the Department of Environmental Protection and won't be subject to the political pressures that are part of government in Oak Bluffs," said selectman Kerry Scott. "It's especially troubling since this calls into question the actions of a widely respected official."