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Diocese takes appeal of soup kitchen denial to federal court

By Claire Bessette

Publication: theday.com

Published January 04. 2013 4:00PM   Updated January 05. 2013 12:00AM

Norwich — The Diocese of Norwich Friday filed an appeal in federal court challenging the city planning commission's Dec. 21 denial of a special permit for the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen to continue operating at the former St. Joseph School.

The Diocese is seeking a temporary injunction that would prevent the city from closing the soup kitchen after a six-month temporary permit expires Jan. 12. No hearing date has been set for the injunction request, according to court documents available online.

"The Diocese will not abandon those most in need," spokesman Michael Strammiello said Friday. "We remain respectful of our neighbors close to the church. Our interest remains to help feed and comfort those who need help, while being responsible and caring neighbors. Carrying out the ministry of the church in our own building more than ever seems to us to be the most fair and practical solution."

The Commission on the City Plan agreed with neighbors in the Cliff Street-Clairmont Avenue areas that the temporary six-month operation of St. Vincent in the vacant former Catholic grammar school was disruptive. Neighbors packed two public hearing sessions and complained of trespassing, foul language, litter and refusal by soup kitchen patrons to leave their properties.

The commission voted unanimously, 5-0, to deny the permit.

"The commission bowed to the baseless complaints of neighborhood opponents," the 41-page lawsuit said, "and improperly credited their anecdotal testimony over expert testimony and evidence submitted on behalf of St. Vincent."

The court documents cite the rights of the church to use the school owned by the St. Joseph parish for its religious ministry under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

A motion authored by attorneys from the Robinson & Cole law firm on behalf of the Diocese states, "The federal courts have found that feeding the needy constitutes religious exercise."

"With no services, St. Vincent will be forced to close, depriving the plaintiffs of the free exercise of religion and the need of critical services," the motion argues.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Warren W. Eginton in Bridgeport. The suit names St. Vincent and St. Joseph's Polish Roman Catholic Congregation as plaintiffs and the City of Norwich, the Commission on the City Plan, city Director of Inspections James Troeger and Fire Marshal James Roberts as defendants.

City Director of Planning and Development Peter Davis could not be reached for comment late Friday on the appeal.

Troeger declined to comment on the lawsuit. He said without an order to stop enforcement, the normal procedure once the Jan. 12 deadline is reached would be to issue a notice of violation to St. Vincent and condemn the facility as an illegal use — likely Monday, Jan. 14. That would include an order for the soup kitchen to vacate the premises.

St. Vincent moved into St. Joseph School in July after the facility's prior location in a former train station behind Main Street closed for structural repairs. The Diocese received a six-month waiver from the state building official to allow the facility to operate its accompanying food pantry without the mandated handicapped accessibility.

The city is using that same deadline for potential enforcement of the planning commission's denial of special permits for the entire soup kitchen and related services.

Diocesan officials announced in the fall that the soup kitchen could not move back to the train station, owned by the Lord Family Nominee Trust, and sought to remain at St. Joseph permanently, triggering the need for a special permit for religious or charitable use in a residential zone.

In the lawsuit, Diocese attorneys said St. Vincent was being treated unfairly by the planning commission, as other similar facilities, both religious and non-religious have been issued permits, some — such as the Katie Blair House and other services run by nonprofit Bethsaida Community Inc. — in the same neighborhood.

Staff Writer Karen Florin contributed to this report

c.bessette@theday.com

k.florin@theday.com

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