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Diocese will appeal soup kitchen permit denial; has no new location

By Claire Bessette

Publication: theday.com

Published December 19. 2012 2:00PM   Updated December 19. 2012 11:47PM

Norwich — The Diocese of Norwich is expected to seek a court injunction to allow the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen to remain in the former St. Joseph School as part of its appeal of the city planning commission's Tuesday denial of permits to allow the facility to remain in the school permanently.

Diocese spokesman Michael Strammiello said the "vital ministry" has no alternative location once temporary permits expire Jan. 12.

Strammiello said diocese officials met at length late Wednesday afternoon with attorneys to discuss plans to appeal the Commission on the City Plan's 5-0 vote against a special permit to allow the soup kitchen to occupy the former school. The appeal would have to be made to Superior Court, and without an injunction the facility would have to relocate or close after Jan. 12.

St. Vincent moved to the school at the corner of Cliff Street and Clairmont Avenue in July after the long-term location at the former city train station closed for structural repairs. The facility received temporary permits from city and state building officials to operate at the school but needed a special permit from the planning commission, and would have needed renovations, to remain permanently at the school.

The commission agreed with neighbors who fought the move that the temporary relocation already had been detrimental to the neighborhood. During two lengthy public hearings, residents cited trespassing, littering, cursing at residents and resistance from people when residents asked them to leave their properties.

Diocese officials said they were "gravely disappointed" in the commission's vote and cited national as well as local problems with the vote.

In a written statement issued Wednesday morning, Strammiello said the planning commission decision is "inconsistent with the First Amendment right of the exercise of religion, specifically in this instance with the church exercising its core mission to feed the hungry and assist those in need."

The diocese also disputed testimony by neighbors, saying police have not reported any new problems in the neighborhood since St. Vincent moved to the school in July.

"It is Christmas week," the statement said. "We are a state and a country suffering terribly from the tragedy in Newtown, and the planning commission all but tossed Norwich's most vulnerable out into the street. It is unthinkable. The commission is fully aware that the soup kitchen does not have a viable accessible alternative to the safe and warm St. Joseph school. It is clear by the decision rendered, aside from any passing rhetoric regarding the soup kitchen's service to community, that the commission rendered a decision without a heartfelt focus on those most in need in their home community."

City officials declined to comment on the decision or the potential legal appeal.

Director of Planning and Development Peter Davis said the facility would be allowed to operate at St. Joseph until the permits expire. The state building permit allowing the food pantry to operate has the Jan. 12 date, while the city building permit did not. But Davis said both operations would be allowed to stay until that date for consistency.

Mayor Peter Nystrom called the soup kitchen an important service to the Norwich community and pledged to work with diocese officials to help find a new location. He said Wednesday no one from the diocese had contacted him yet about the issue.

Nystrom said the issue was "weighing heavy on my mind" and said if building owners have space that could be appropriate for the soup kitchen, they could contact his office to discuss the situation.

"Moving forward, the city's got to help if it can," Nystrom said. "These are our people. They live here. Norwich has a level of poverty greater or equal to other cities. You just can't turn your backs on them. We've got to help."

c.bessette@theday.com

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