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Norwich tries to get soup kitchen's appeal thrown out of federal court

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published February 12. 2013 4:00AM

Norwich - Lawyers representing the city filed four briefs in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport Monday asking the court to dismiss St. Vincent de Paul Place's appeal of the city's denial of a permit to run the soup kitchen at the former St. Joseph School on Cliff Street.

The city also objected to St. Vincent's requests to postpone an injunction hearing and extend a court-ordered restraining order to March 25.

The city argued that St. Vincent's federal court challenge to the permit denial was premature because the soup kitchen and St. Joseph's Church hadn't exhausted administrative appeals. Attorneys Michael Zizka and Joseph Schwartz, representing the city, said St. Vincent didn't even file appeals to the city Zoning Board of Appeals until Feb. 1, more than a month after the Commission on the City Plan denied special permits for the soup kitchen.

Zizka and Schwartz said the facility could not show undo hardship in requesting the injunction and also argued that St. Vincent was not likely to win its appeal on the merits of the case. They also rejected St. Vincent's claims that the city violated federal law that protects religious institutions, saying the federal law was not intended to "relieve religious institutions from variances, special permits and exceptions."

St. Vincent filed an appeal to U.S. District Court Jan. 4 challenging the planning commission's denial of a permit to allow St. Vincent to remain permanently at the former school. With the denial, St. Vincent's six-month temporary permits expired Jan. 12.

As part of that appeal, U.S. District Court Judge Warren W. Eginton ordered that the city could not to enforce violation orders to close the soup kitchen until a Feb. 25 injunction hearing in the Bridgeport court.

But St. Vincent last week asked the court to postpone that hearing to March 25 to allow time for the city Zoning Board of Appeals to hear an administrative appeal challenging Zoning Enforcement Officer Tianne Curtis' violation notice and a request for a variance to allow the soup kitchen to operate in the former school.

But Zizka and Schwartz said the city rather than St. Vincent could be requesting an injunction against the operation of the soup kitchen. If the city started enforcement action, it likely would be a prolonged process, and St. Vincent is not at risk "of immediate irreparable injury" from enforcement action.

They also argued that St. Vincent would not be precluded from providing its services to needy people in another location. The soup kitchen operated "for many years" at the former train station behind Main Street, the attorneys wrote, and St. Vincent argued it could not return there for financial reasons cited as exorbitant rent.

"The case is really about location preference and financial concerns," the city lawyers argued, "and not about a truly 'substantial' burden that directly impacts the plaintiffs' ability to practice their religion."

c.bessette@theday.com

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