Norwich commission approves settlement allowing soup kitchen to stay
Norwich — A city commission agreed Tuesday to a legal settlement that will allow the St. Vincent de Paul Place to continue operating a soup kitchen, food pantry, laundry and shower facility in a former Catholic school on Cliff Street in Norwich, ending a yearslong battle over the use of the property.
The Commission on the City Plan met Tuesday night for a special meeting to vote on the settlement — which was released earlier this month — and hear comments from the public.
The agreement will help the city avoid potentially millions of dollars in legal fees if the dispute over the soup kitchen were to continue in U.S. District Court, according to City Attorney Michael Zizka, who has represented the city throughout the dispute.
The soup kitchen’s move to the former school building in July 2012, and the city’s subsequent denial of planning and zoning permits for the facility, has since prompted three federal lawsuits.
“If the city were to lose any one of those cases, it could be responsible for seven figures worth of legal fees,” Zizka said Tuesday at the commission meeting in Norwich City Hall.
Residents of the neighborhood have complained of trespassing, littering and foul language coming from soup kitchen patrons.
They also have said the soup kitchen’s presence in the neighborhood has pushed down property values.
Many of those residents came to Tuesday’s meeting to repeat their concerns and ask the commission not to approve the agreement.
But just as many, it seemed, gathered in City Hall to push the commission to approve the settlement and end the three-year fight over whether St. Vincent de Paul Place should be allowed to provide food and other services.
Jeremiah Lowney, a Norwich resident, pointed out that the meeting Tuesday was taking place just days before Christmas.
“Many of us will attend church services on Friday and wish others a happy holiday, merry Christmas, sing hymns … and sit with family and friends for a delicious holiday meal,” he said. “Yet we are here tonight … to decide whether some of our neighbors can be provided with a life-sustaining meal. There’s a definite disconnect here.”
While the city could continue to fight against the soup kitchen’s appeals for zoning regulations, allowing it to stay on Cliff Street, Zizka said, the soup kitchen, as a ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, would likely have the First Amendment on its side.
“While we strongly believe that the decisions that were made on the Commission on the City Plan and the Zoning Board of Appeals could be defended, we can’t guarantee that,” Zizka said. “At some point, the court is going to say ‘look, you’ve got to allow some kind of use.’”
The settlement approved Tuesday night stipulates that the commission would have to approve a permit for activities including a soup kitchen six days a week, a food pantry three days a week, showers and laundry for patrons, counseling, classes and prayer sessions.
It also stipulates that the city’s zoning enforcement officer would contact St. Vincent and work to ameliorate any behavior causing concern among neighbors of the soup kitchen.
Members of the commission said Tuesday that, while they still had reservations about allowing the facility to stay in place, the dispute had run its course.
“I cannot sit here in all good conscience and open the taxpayers of Norwich to the liability that we would incur should we deny this, and ultimately have the court rule against us,” commission member Arthur Sharron said. “To put that kind of a burden on the taxpayers of Norwich is just not fair.”
Federal law, commission member Michael P. Lahan said, would likely outweigh the views of the city’s zoning officials.
“We cannot intrude on the rights of any churches,” Lahan said. “They’re staying, and we need to face the reality that it’s unlikely that we will win this case. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”
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