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Soup kitchen settlement talks between Norwich officials, diocese falter

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published May 22. 2014 4:00AM

Norwich - Settlement talks between attorneys for the city and the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen have broken down, and the soup kitchen's appeal of the city's denial of zoning permits to remain operating in the former St. Joseph School is moving forward in federal court.

The two parties have held several settlement discussions either in person or via teleconference calls with U.S. District Court Judge Joan G. Margolis. But in a joint report to the court filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Haven, attorneys for the two parties reported they cannot reach a settlement.

"The parties have conducted numerous settlement conferences before the Honorable Judge Margolis and, unfortunately, despite diligent efforts, were not successful in settling these three cases," the report says.

St. Vincent first filed an appeal of the Commission on the City Plan's December 2012 denial of a special permit to continue running the soup kitchen, food pantry and other services in the former school. The facility, operated by the Diocese of Norwich, then appealed Zoning Enforcement Officer Tianne Curtis' notice of violation issued when the soup kitchen's six-month temporary permit expired in January, and the soup kitchen filed a third appeal when the city Zoning Board of Appeals denied a variance to allow the diocese to continue operating the facility in the school building.

All three cases were consolidated and are now before Judge Warren W. Eginton in the New Haven court. On Tuesday, Eginton accepted the joint report and posted a schedule of upcoming deadlines in the appeal.

The city has until the end of June to file a motion to dismiss the case. In the report, attorney Michael Zizka, representing the city, stated that he plans to file that motion. Zizka will argue that the appeal to federal court is "not ripe" in that St. Vincent should have first sought an appeal in state Superior Court.

St. Vincent will have until Aug. 14 to respond to the city's motion, and the city's response to that will be due Aug. 29. After the anticipated motion to dismiss is adjudicated, the parties will have six months to file discovery briefs, and motions for summary judgments are due 45 days later.

At the start of the court appeal process in January 2013, city officials agreed to delay enforcement of the zoning denial until the appeals are completed.

The soup kitchen continues to operate in the Cliff Street neighborhood, and residents there continue to complain to city officials that the operation has been detrimental to the neighborhood.

That argument was at the heart of the Commission on the City Plan's original permit denial. Residents testified that soup kitchen patrons routinely trespassed on their property, littered, directed foul language at homeowners and damaged property.

St. Vincent's argument centers on the diocese's right to carry on a religious mission on its property. Attorney Brian Smith argued that the city has violated the diocese's rights of religious freedom protected by the U.S. Constitution and by the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Smith also repeatedly stated in his argument that the diocese searched for a new location for the soup kitchen to no avail. "Without the special permit to operate at the property, St. Vincent will be forced to terminate its operation altogether," he has said.

In his argument on behalf of the city, Zizka said St. Vincent initially agreed to the six-month temporary permit, which ran from July 2012 to January 2013, and should not be allowed to object to enforcement of its deadline.

Zizka also plans to explore the diocese's claim that it could not find alternative locations and the circumstances that forced the facility to move out of its former leased location in the city's former train station behind Main Street.

c.bessette@theday.com

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