Public hearing on relocation of Norwich soup kitchen tense, lengthy

Norwich — The city's denial of permits for the St. Vincent de Paul Place to operate at the former St. Joseph School caused a "stressful and uncertain environment" for patrons and staff, and the zoning officer's violation notices added to that stress, the soup kitchen's executive director told the Zoning Board of Appeals Tuesday.

But a neighbor leading the opposition to the soup kitchen's relocation to the former school said the diocese shouldn't have been surprised by the violation notices, since the move was supposed to be temporary and set to expire. Hobart Avenue resident Brian Kobylarz said instead of stress, St. Vincent should have taken it as a "lesson learned" that the Diocese of Norwich cannot act above city regulations.

"The diocese is not above the law and should not be allowed to act as a bully on the playground," Kobylarz said.

Neighbors have objected to the relocation, citing disruptions including trespassing, litter and foul language directed at homeowners.

The controversial relocation of St. Vincent de Paul Place moved to the ZBA Tuesday in the packed Council Chambers. The ZBA held two public hearings on the diocese's appeal to overturn the zoning violation notices and to change the zoning use of the school to allow the soup kitchen and food pantry to remain there.

The hearing continued late into the night Tuesday, and by 10:30 p.m., residents had yet to address the board, other than Kobylarz's comment at the start of the session. The hearing was continued to April 9, and the ZBA postponed decisions on both appeals to that meeting.

Attorney Brian R. Smith, representing St. Vincent, said feeding the poor was a mission of the church for "thousands of years," and the Diocese of Norwich should be allowed to continue that mission at the former Catholic school.

Linnea McCaffrey, a planning analyst for the law firm Robinson & Cole, said several churches in Norwich also run food pantries and community meals on certain dates. None of them were required to obtain special permits or change of use approvals and none were identified as soup kitchens.

David Warfield of Central Baptist Church said that church serves community meals twice a week, with meals served to 2,000 individuals in January and February alone. He said the church has not been required to obtain a special permit or use variance, and he argued that St. Vincent should be allowed to operate its mission as well.

"We maintain it's our right to continue to use our property for this mission," the Most Rev. Michael Cote, bishop of Norwich, submitted in a letter to the ZBA.

Smith said the use variance would specifically allow St. Vincent to have both a soup kitchen and a food pantry at the former school as part of a religious mission.

"It's part of the overall mission to feed the poor," Smith said.

Hobart Avenue resident David Mitchell also submitted written testimony outlining disruptions he has experienced at his house. He said cars routinely turn around — about a half dozen a day — in his yard, often crossing onto the lawn. He said he picks up trash daily from his yard, and recently, the postal carrier told him he would not leave packages at the door if someone was not home.

"The mail carrier also informed us that this change in practice was directly due to the relocation of the soup kitchen to our neighborhood and some of the clientele which it attracts," Mitchell wrote.

Attorney Michael Zizka, representing the city, said St. Vincent's testimony also described showers, laundry and other services the facility would offer. He said all uses must be spelled out in the request.

St. Vincent Executive Director Jillian Corbin described the services offered at the school, including the soup kitchen meals, outreach to homeless people and "the only public showers in Norwich." St. Vincent is open during the day when the city's overnight winter shelter is closed.

Corbin invited neighbors to contact her with problems and said St. Vincent staff and volunteers would pick up trash on neighbors' lawns. She said staff reviews behavioral standards at the soup kitchen with patrons daily.

Tension rose briefly when Father Ray Introvigne, co-director of spiritual and renewal services for the diocese, said neighbors "should be ashamed" to oppose the facility. He said anyone could fall into poverty at any time and need such services.

One resident rose to contest his remarks but was cut off by ZBA members, who quickly restored order.


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