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Soup kitchen's appeal of permit denial dismissed

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published March 21. 2013 4:00AM

Norwich - A U.S. District judge in Bridgeport has dismissed St. Vincent de Paul Place's court appeal of the city's denial of a special permit to allow the soup kitchen to relocate to the former St. Joseph School, saying the facility first had to exhaust all city appeals.

Judge Warren Eginton agreed with the city's motion to dismiss St. Vincent's appeal of the city's Dec. 14 special permit denial on the grounds that the case "was not ripe" for a court appeals.

City attorneys had argued that at the time of the court appeal on Jan. 4, St. Vincent had not yet filed an appeal within the city to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

St. Vincent filed two appeals to the ZBA at the end of January and in early February, first challenging Zoning Enforcement Officer Tianne Curtis' zoning violation notice issued Jan. 14 and then seeking a zoning variance to change the use of the former school to a soup kitchen and food pantry.

The ZBA held lengthy public hearings on the appeals March 12 and will continue the hearing on April 9 before making a decision either that night or at a future meeting.

"Here, plaintiffs have not demonstrated that application for a variance would be futile or merely remedial," Eginton wrote in the March 13 dismissal order. "Indeed, since filing this action, plaintiffs have applied for a variance. Accordingly, plaintiffs' injury is merely speculative and may never occur, depending on the final administrative resolution of plaintiffs' variance application."

Attorneys for St. Vincent were not available to comment Wednesday evening.

The soup kitchen relocation has been controversial since last summer, when St. Vincent received a temporary permit to operate for six months at St. Joseph's School after its longtime home in the former train station behind Main Street was closed for renovations.

Neighbors objected to the move and doubted from the start that it would be temporary. In November, St. Vincent applied to the Commission on the City Plan for a special permit to remain at the former school permanently. Neighbors cited problems with trespassing, litter and vulgar language by soup kitchen patrons during the temporary move and persuaded the commission that the facility was detrimental to the neighborhood.

Residents are expected to raise those issues with the ZBA April 9.

Attorneys for the Diocese of Norwich, which runs the soup kitchen, and soup kitchen supporters argued that St. Vincent's services - feeding and clothing the poor and providing assistance - are essential components of the Catholic Church's religious mission. They said the St. Joseph Church parish, which owns the school, should have the right to use the building for that religious mission.

In his order, Eginton specifically said he did not address the substantive issues in the lawsuit, including claims by the diocese of First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution to practice its religion on church property.

c.bessette@theday.com

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