Published May 14. 2013 7:00PM Updated May 14. 2013 11:49PM
Norwich — The Zoning Board of Appeals Tuesday rejected the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen application to convert the former St. Joseph School on Cliff Street into a soup kitchen and food pantry, but urged the city to work with the diocese to find a suitable site for the service.
In a 4-1 vote, the ZBA said the Diocese of Norwich failed to prove a zoning hardship and also agreed with neighbors that the facility has been disruptive to the residential neighborhood. The soup kitchen moved to the former school in July on a six-month temporary permit after structural damage was discovered at its longtime home in the former train station behind Main Street.
"The impact on the neighborhood has been overwhelming," ZBA member Raymond Dussault said.
Two appeals of previous city decisions against the soup kitchen already are pending in federal court, and diocese spokesman Michael Strammiello said the diocese likely will appeal Tuesday's decision to federal court. The diocese has argued that the city's decisions violate the diocese's constitutionally protected mission to serve the poor on its property.
"It was difficult to hear them talk about hardship," Strammiello said, "when people are hungry and need to be fed. Talk about hardship."
Board members said they struggled with the decision, agreeing that the soup kitchen is needed in Norwich. But Chairman Marc Benjamin said he did not believe the diocese proved the hardship required to approve a variance.
ZBA member Henry Olender cast the lone vote in favor of the soup kitchen variance. Olender said the real hardship is on the city, for the negative publicity that will come with denying a soup kitchen that feeds needy people.
"It's going to bring nationwide attention to the city of Norwich," Olender said.
The diocese asked ZBA members Dussault and Paul Kramarewicz to recuse themselves, saying they had made prejudicial comments prior to Tuesday's meeting. Kramarewicz complied, but Dussault said he felt he had said nothing inappropriate and would vote on the application. Later, Dussault said he, too, struggled with the decision, especially having grown up a Catholic.
Board members urged city officials to work with the diocese to find a new location for the soup kitchen. Benjamin said Norwich does allow soup kitchens through the special permit process.
Mayor Peter Nystrom, who did not attend the ZBA meeting, said later that he has been working with diocese officials and a real estate broker to try to find a new site for the facility. Nystrom said the group toured one building at the state-owned Uncas on Thames former hospital campus on Route 32 and recently toured another privately owned building in Norwich.
"We're searching for a place that will meet their needs so the soup kitchen will be sustained," Nystrom said.
The soup kitchen will not have to move anytime soon. Attorney Michael Zizka, representing the city, said the city made an agreement with the federal court judge not to enforce the permit denial while the appeal is pending. The judge in March dismissed the appeal, but the diocese appealed that ruling.
Zizka estimated the initial appeals will take at least several months.
Hobart Avenue resident Brian Kobylarz, who has led the opposition against the soup kitchen move, said he was pleased with the decision but found it disturbing that the soup kitchen will remain in operation in the former school for months longer.
"I find it troubling that they get to stay open," Kobylarz said, "because there will be continued harm to the neighborhood."
The Commission on the City Plan on Dec. 18 rejected the diocese's application for a special permit to move the soup kitchen to the former school. The diocese appealed that to U.S. District Court in Bridgeport. A judge dismissed the case, but the diocese appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City.
The diocese filed a second federal lawsuit April 29 in New Haven challenging the ZBA's decision last month to uphold Zoning Enforcement Officer Tianne Curtis' notice of violation against the soup kitchen.