* updated below *
A mediation session ordered by a Vermont judge may settle, amicably, an ongoing dispute over a group home run by the Howard Center for Human Services. Its landlords — the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vermont and Burlington College — want to relocate the residents, but so far, that's been difficult to do.
HowardCenter officials hope the 17 residents can stay in the single-family home at the former Diocesan property on North Avenue through the summer, which will give the organization enough time to rehab another property in Burlington. The proposed new home is located on St. Paul Street adjacent to Smalley Park, and is owned by Champlain Housing Trust.
The home should be renovated and ready to receive the residents by late summer, perhaps early fall, said Michael Monte, chief operating officer of the Champlain Housing Trust.
"We're pushing pretty hard because we know that Howard is in a tough spot and needs to move and move fast," said Monte. "So, we're doing the best we can in a reasonable way. We have a couple of tenants that we needed to find new homes for and we have been able to do that. They've been very accommodating and understanding, which is great."
HowardCenter officials, too, were pleased with the way that CHT stepped up to help them out. The reception they received from CHT was far different from the one they received from New North Enders when it was suggested that the Lakeview residents move to a parish-owned property along North Avenue.
A public meeting with neighbors, held two weeks ago, was largely positive. Family members of the group home's residents were at the meeting, as were neighbors and officials from CHT and HowardCenter.
"We flyered the abutters to the property — and more than 100 residents around the new location — and had a public meeting and had 40 people show up," said Bob Bick, HowardCenter's director of mental health and substance abuse services. "The response was overwhelmingly positive, and overall it was a very welcoming experience. I've been doing community entry for 30 years for all kinds of disenfranchised populations, and this was one of the more welcoming meetings that I've ever experienced."
The Diocese and Burlington College have been pressuring HowardCenter to move their residents — or even to split up the tenants — or face an eviction at the end of May. Burlington College President Jane O'Meara Sanders told Seven Days in a recent article that the nonprofit status of the college's bonds used to finance its purchase of the Diocesan property could be jeopardized if the group home is on the property beyond May.
Superior Court Judge Helen Toor ordered the three parties to sit down and try to hash out an agreement. They meet tomorrow.
"I'm optimistic that it will be productive and helpful and obviously I'm not going to mediate in the media, but to some extent the timeline and our ability to expedite will be predicated on our mediation session," said Bick.
Diocesan and College officials did not respond to Seven Days requests to be interviewed for this article.
In March, the Diocese filed suit in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington, asking a judge to rule on the legality of its eviction notice. The diocese claims it issued a proper emergency lease-termination notice last May, giving HowardCenter six months to vacate the property. In September, HowardCenter questioned the legality of the diocese’s notice in hopes of buying extra time to find a new group-home location. The initial deadline eviction deadline was November 30. The diocese and college have allowed HowardCenter to remain longer, but did not want the group home to remain indefinitely.
Photo: This photo is of the window above the entrance to the former orphanage, which is part of the ex-Diocese building on North Avenue.
* update posted 4/29 *
Thursday's mediation session with Burlington College and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vermont was productive and "very, very successful," Bob Bick, the HowardCenter's director of mental health and substance abuse services, tells Seven Days.
After the meeting, the three parties agreed upon this joint statement:
“The parties have agreed to a resolution of the case which will allow the three institutions to continue their valuable work in the community. The HowardCenter will move to a new location by the end of August.”
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