The City of Norwich, Connecticut has agreed to end a three-year legal battle to settle three separate federal lawsuits allowing St. Vincent de Paul Place, Norwich, Inc., a ministry of The Polish Roman Catholic Congregation (Church), to operate a soup kitchen and food pantry at the site of a former parochial school. The settlement will help to ensure that St. Vincent continues to provide food, shelter, and religion to hundreds of individuals daily. Robinson & Cole has represented St. Vincent and the Church throughout the entirety of the administrative and federal proceedings through settlement.
The controversy began in the summer of 2011 when St. Vincent’s former landlord informed it that the space it had been leasing was in need of serious renovation, and that St. Vincent would be forced to vacate the premises. With nowhere else to go, St. Vincent secured temporary (6-month) approval from the City to operate from the former parochial school (previously operated by the Church). The new location – about a third of a mile from the former location – was in a residential neighborhood that included several of the soup kitchen’s patrons. The temporary approval provided that St. Vincent could remain at that location permanently if it obtained a special permit from the City of Norwich Commission on the City Plan (“religious” uses are allowed by special permit in the subject zoning district).
St. Vincent continued to search for a new location, but was without success. It applied for a special permit to permanently operate from the former school, but the Commission denied the application a week before Christmas in 2012, succumbing to neighborhood fears and opposition. St. Vincent sued under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act, the State and U.S. Constitutions, and state law (C.G.S. § 8-8 zoning appeal) (complaint available here). After the 6-month temporary permit expired, the City issued notices of violation to St. Vincent and the Church, which led to another federal suit (complaint available here). Finally, St. Vincent and the Church applied for a use variance to allow a “religious” use in the subject zone as of right (rather than by special permit), but this too was denied, and led to a third federal lawsuit (complaint available here).
After three years of litigation, including a trip to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (prior post here), the parties have settled the controversy. Under the terms of the settlement (available here), the City will issue a special permit that will allow St. Vincent to continue as a soup kitchen and food pantry. Approximately three years after denying the special permit application, the Commission approved the settlement at a public meeting in the face of continued public opposition. For the City, the threat that it would lose the lawsuits and have to pay St. Vincent’s and the Church’s legal fees was not worth the risk. One member of the Commission stated:
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. To put that kind of a burden on the taxpayers of Norwich is just not fair.
As noted by some members of the Commission, a loss could expose the City to millions of dollars in damages and fees.
On February 19, 2016, Judge Warren W. Eginton approved the settlement. In a prepared statement, St. Vincent and the Church looked forward to the future and continuing to serve the underserved: “We now have the opportunity to work together in Norwich to end homelessness and hunger, to affirm the dignity of all people who are physically, mentally or spiritually impoverished and to build a community for all.”