ZBA votes not to overturn zoning violations issued to Norwich soup kitchen

Norwich — Members of the Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday voted unanimously not to overturn the zoning violations issued to St. Vincent de Paul Place because its temporary stay at the former St. Joseph's School had expired.

For now, St. Vincent's de Paul Place will be allowed to stay at St. Joseph's until the zoning board votes on the proposed zoning variance next month.

A March 12 public hearing on the soup kitchen's request for the variance to permanently operate inside the former school was continued to Tuesday, but the hearing began at 9:30 p.m. and went late into the night. No vote had been taken by 10 p.m.

"This board has the ability of granting a variance for hardships. The clients of this soup kitchen are the hardships; these are the people for whom we seek the variance," Haitian Health Foundation founder and Norwich resident Dr. Jeremiah Lowney Jr. said at the hearing. "They would suffer if they are deprived of the food they get at the soup kitchen."

Brian R. Smith, the soup kitchen's attorney, said St. Vincent filed an appeal on Monday of a U.S. District judge's dismissal of its lawsuit challenging the city's denial of permits to relocate to the former St. Joseph School, on Cliff Street.

Adding "another layer" Smith said, is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — a statute intended to prevent the discrimination against individuals or entities seeking to use land for religious purposes.

He said going to the Second Circuit "doesn't make as much sense" and that he would much prefer to work the issue out "here, in front of you."

"Let's approve this, but limit the conditions that make sense to everybody," Smith said. "We're in a very tough spot. If you deny us, we're going to have to close and our service stops. It's a very serious situation. We're looking to you. ... We're talking about the real people of Norwich who are hungry and want help, and we are here. So how do we do it and make it work?"

The soup kitchen has been operating out of the school since it moved out of its Main Street location behind the train station to allow for renovations. The move was supposed to be temporary, but the soup kitchen is looking to make the former school its permanent home.

City Zoning Enforcement Officer Tianne Curtis notified the soup kitchen in January that it was in violation by staying at the former school beyond the time period dictated in the temporary permits issues by the city.

"I think she acted appropriately. I think the city was gracious and patient with the leadership of the soup kitchen, and I can't find fault in anything she did," zoning board member Raymond Dussault said. "I don't see any discrimination, any kind of intimidation or power play out of the office. It was simply notification that they were in violation and that time expired before the issue was resolved."

Neighbors have been opposed to the soup kitchen's requested permanent move, stating that the clientele has sworn at them and left trash in their yards.



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