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Norwich soup kitchen fate could be decided Tuesday

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published December 17. 2012 4:00AM

Norwich - The controversial plan to move St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen to St. Joseph School won't be the only issue on the table Tuesday when the Commission on the City Plan meets to discuss a busy agenda.

The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.

The relocation of the soup kitchen has drawn full-house crowds to two public hearing sessions in October and November, with supporters arguing that the operation is part of the Diocese of Norwich's religious ministries and neighbors countering that the temporary move already has disrupted the residential neighborhood.

The soup kitchen was forced to find a new home after structural repairs closed the former location at the former city train station behind Main Street. The vacant St. Joseph School at the corner of Cliff Street and Clairmont Avenue already was on a list of sites being considered for a possible permanent move, and the facility received a temporary permit in July to relocate.

Neighbors say the experience has been a nightmare for them, with patrons trespassing on their properties, littering and allegedly swearing back at property owners in response to requests to move.

The commission closed the hearing last month, but members were not then ready to vote, given the thick file of submitted testimony and supporting documents. The commission has 65 days to vote on the special permit application, which could carry into mid-January if members still feel they need more time after Tuesday's discussion.

Among the issues raised during the hearing is the question whether the commission even has the authority to rule in the matter. Diocese attorney Timothy Bates cited past court cases which ruled that such facilities are part of the church's mission and allowed on church properties.

Zoning attorney Michael Zizka, hired by the city t o advise the commission on the controversial application, told the panel it does have the authority to regulate the activity.

The commission will also open two public hearings on special permit applications to expand existing businesses.

Thayer's Marine & RV at the corner of Falls Avenue and West Main Street at Norwich Harbor would like to add hunting and camping equipment sales to its long-established fishing, tackle and boat sales operation.

Retail manager Zachary Tarner said winter is traditionally "an absolutely slow" season for the store, and the special permit request is an effort to make it a year-round operation by adding hunting and camping to the mix. He said if approved, the move would concentrate on hunting equipment, such as rifles, camouflage clothing and related gear.

The highly visible retail windows facing West Main Street likely would show tents and camouflage hunting gear during the winter.

The store needs a special permit because the expansion does not constitute a water-dependent business use in the harbor zoning district, Director of Planning and Development Peter Davis said.

Tarner said if the permit is approved, Thayer's would look to renovate the building to expand retail uses into the upper floors of the four-story historic brick building.

That would require an elevator and other changes. He said the expanded retail operation also would add year-round jobs to the city.

Computech Transmissions at 200 West Main St. also hopes to win special permit approval Tuesday for a retail expansion. The auto repair business received its initial permit in 1985, but that specifically prohibited automobile sales at the property.

Adding auto sales requires a special permit with a public hearing, Davis said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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