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DANBURY Shelter fight heads back to court

September 28, 2018

DANBURY — A Hartford judge will decide whether Danbury’s Dorothy Day Hospitality House can continue to operate after city zoning officials closed the door on a possible local settlement plan.

After a series of hearings and debates throughout the summer, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted to deny a proposal Thursday night that could have created an opportunity to settle the controversy over the downtown homeless shelter.

“That was a tough one, but I think it’s the right thing to do in the long term,” Chairman Dick Jowdy said. “There’s still the lawsuit, if something were to happen there, then the city would be right in the middle of it because we approved these variances. I think we made the right decision.”

The board unanimously agreed it would not support a series of highly technical variances that would have given the 120-year-old Dorothy Day building permission not to meet certain modern zoning rules. That would have allowed the shelter to apply for a special exception to reauthorize the shelter to continue to operate as it has for 35 years.

Instead, the vote sends the final decision back to Judge Marshall Berger, Jr., who presides over the land-use litigation docket in Hartford, where an appeal is pending over the city’s 2016 attempt to close part of the Spring Street shelter for lack of proper approvals.

The typically heated debate about the issue was muted Thursday night, with only three residents in attendance to hear the vote, and no discussion among board members who already have spent hours debating the details over the past three months.

The board’s lengthy resolution outlined a series of reasons why members disagreed with the proposed variances, but at the root of the issue was the “hall pass” nature of Dorothy Day attorney Neil Marcus’ proposal.

That could bend the rules so much that the shelter might not even need the exception or could have unintended consequences should another operation one day take over the site, Jowdy said.

“The applicant’s request that the board ‘waive’ the legal requirements ... so as to grant a ‘hall pass’ to allow applications to the Planning Commission for a grant of a special exception with site plan approval is outside the scope of the board’s authority,” the resolution concludes.

The vote appears to exhaust Dorothy Day’s options under city rules to bring its shelter back into zoning compliance. It was not immediately clear at the end of the meeting how soon Marcus and city attorneys will return to the issue with Berger, who had delayed further discussion on the case to allow the parties time to consider the possible settlement.

zach.murdock@hearstmediact.com

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