St. JohnsburyApartment Manager Files Complaint Over Church Warming Program

A neighbor to the UCC took this photo recently; police said they stopped a young man outside the church who they had questions for, but there was not an incident connected to the new warming program which runs at the Main Street church 7 days a week. (Courtesy Photo)

ST. JOHNSBURY - The manager of a 46-unit apartment building located about 200 feet from the United Community Church on Main Street has filed an appeal of the town’s recent ruling that a new 7-day-a-week community coffee and warming center program does not require a change of use.

Susan Aiken, a local realtor who has managed the Colonial Apartments for the past 15 years, said she filed her brief appeal at about 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, the deadline by which an appeal of Zoning Administrator Paul Berlejung’s recent determination was due.

Aiken said she talked to several town officials, “about the fact that they say there is no change of zoning there because they keep changing the name of what they’re doing there.”

The new morning program, which operates from 7:30 a.m. to noon, 7 days a week, is hosted by the church and is operated in conjunction with the Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA) program, which obtained a $3,000 grant through the Vermont Community Foundation to help pay for a part-time coordinator. The program also relies on volunteers.

Training for those volunteers was held at the same time as training for the overnight warming shelter on Hospital Drive operated by NEKCA.

Both programs will run mid-November to mid-April.

Church officials, when challenged by a handful of neighboring property owners, and questioned by the newspaper, have said the word “shelter” is a misnomer for the new program; last year, the church hosted, with NEKCA, a daytime warming center on only a handful of the very coldest days, after a group of representatives from local clergy, and nonprofits, working with a state official from the health department worked to find a solution for a day shelter in St. Johnsbury.

Language used for the grant from the foundation referred to the program at the church this winter as a shelter, the narrative used to get the grant, obtained this week from NEKCA, shows clearly.

Aiken was one of the five complainants who objected to the church hosting the new morning program in writing.

Four others are downtown home and/or business owners.

Aiken said she did not feel comfortable sharing the appeal with the newspaper in writing, but she read from it over the telephone when contacted.

“Changing the name of the activity should not make it fit into the zoning on Main Street,” she wrote.

Aiken said the town’s zoning should change if the use at the UCC is to be permitted.

If the use as a shelter were included in the zoning bylaws, “then I’ll be forced to oblige,” she said.

Her appeal to the town, delivered 15 minutes before the deadline, included a list of complaints including young men standing on the street smoking. She said in her complaint that she personally objects to seeing that, noting that cigarettes cost $10 a pack x 31 days in a month, amounting to $310 a month “which could be rent.”

She said one of her elderly tenants at the Colonial Apartments had to walk around a group of young men out near the street smoking, “because they did not move” for her.

She suggested the church allow an area in the parking lot for the day program’s smokers, saying the UCC is 205 feet from the Colonial and she is concerned about tenants letting strangers into the building.

“I am no longer able to keep my tenants warm and safe,” said Aiken, saying those are her promises as manager of the building.

Efforts to reach Bereljung, the zoning administrator, late Wednesday, were not successful.

Efforts to reach the head of NEKCA and the minister of the UCC by press time Wednesday were also not successful.

An appeal of the zoning administrator’s determination – which the town relied on a legal opinion for – will mean the St. Johnsbury Development Review Board will now host a hearing on Aiken’s complaint to the town.

St. Johnsbury has a bylaw that requires shelters to be located in the hospital district.

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