Published December 18. 2012 7:00PM Updated December 19. 2012 12:04AM
Norwich — The St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen and related ministries cannot remain at the former St. Joseph School at the corner of Cliff Street and Clairmont Avenue, the city planning commission ruled Tuesday, because the facility was disruptive to the character of the surrounding residential neighborhood.
The Commission on the City Plan voted 5-0 to deny St. Vincent a special permit to remain in the school beyond the expiration of the facility's temporary permit on Jan. 12. Commission members said the presence of the soup kitchen in the school since July has proven it to be a detriment to the residential neighborhood.
Commission member Frank Manfredi disagreed with proponents' arguments during two contentious public hearings that St. Vincent's mission was an extension of the parish church next door and should be allowed on the church-owned school property.
"This is a much different use than a school," Manfredi said, noting that the soup kitchen serves adults, while the school was for grammar-school-aged students.
He also said the commission had the benefit of experience to judge whether the facility fit the character of the neighborhood.
St. Vincent was forced to find a new location in July when the former city train station behind Main Street closed for structural repairs. The facility obtained temporary six-month permits from city and state building officials, but needed a special permit from the planning commission to remain permanently in the school.
During the two public hearing sessions, neighbors complained that patrons had trespassed on their properties, threw litter in their yards, cursed at residents and refused to leave when asked.
"We've heard from neighbors what has happened," Manfredi said, "how it has affected the character of the neighborhood."
Chairman Ralph Page added his concerns about added traffic to the neighborhood, as St. Vincent had planned to expand the operation to include a food pantry, a clothing bank and other services.
The vote leaves St. Vincent with less than a month to find a new permanent location.
"We do not have an alternative location," Executive Director Jillian Corbin said after the vote.
Corbin said she would meet with soup kitchen staff and Diocese of Norwich officials right away on a future plan.
"It's somewhat of a surprise," Corbin said.
Neighbors applauded briefly after the vote before clearing the meeting room.
Cliff Street resident Sarah Scepanski called the vote "wonderful" and "awesome."
But Hobart Avenue resident Brian Kobylarz, who led the opposition to the relocation, called it "a double-edged sword," leaving a vital city service with less than a month to find a new location. Repeatedly during two public hearing sessions, residents supported the soup kitchen mission and its services but argued that the former neighborhood school was an inappropriate location.