Bennington asks judge to shut down summer camp
BENNINGTON — The town has asked a Superior Court judge to fine the operators of a youth camp on the former Southern Vermont College campus and to find the camp in contempt and order the site vacated.
At the conclusion of a three-hour hearing Wednesday at Bennington Superior Court Civil Division, attorney Merrill Bent, representing the town, cited repeated noise complaints from neighbors of the property since the first campers arrived on July 5. The town subsequently filed a motion seeking a contempt finding for alleged noise-related violations of prior orders in the case.
She said the problems also continued despite a court-approved agreement to eliminate the issues that was reached with town officials on July 22.
Moshe Perlstein, director of the camp for Orthodox Jewish teens from the New Jersey-New York City area, issued "repeated promises to stop" the noise, Bent said, but complaints persisted.
The town's position at this point, Bent told Judge Cortland Corsones, is that it "doesn't have any confidence that any order short of terminating activities will have any effect, and that if the penalty is solely monetary, the conduct will continue and the neighbors will not get any relief for the remainder of the summer."
Bent asked that the judge find Perlstein and the camp in contempt of court and issue fines to cover the town's expenses in dealing with the noise issues, as well as punitive penalties. She asked that any further use of the property for a camp be immediately prohibited and that the campus be vacated within 72 hours.
The camp includes approximately 350 teens and staff members who are staying in buildings on the campus.
Corsones took the matter under advisement and said he expects to issue a decision soon.
The camp is currently partway through a three-week session for boys, which began on July 26. That session was preceded by one for a similar number of teen girls.
Attorney Carl Lisman, representing Perlstein and the camp, cited several steps Perlstein had taken to reduce noise as the camp progressed. He said a temporary restraining order issued by the judge on July 15 referred to voices or music amplified through a public address or other system, adding that the camp has eliminated the public address system and stopped using a large tent for assemblies with the intention of moving large groups into the former SVC athletic building.
He argued against having "to pack up the boys and leave" before the end of the three-week session, particularly their "parents have had make plans" that could be disrupted if the campers were sent home.
Both Lisman and Perlstein said that despite the past complaints, the camp had received none over the past few days.
Before Perlstein testified in the teleconference court session, Bent called on five Bennington police officers to testify to the numerous nighttime complaints they responded to after the first campers arrived July 5.
Complaints continued after the temporary restraining order was issued by the judge July 15 and also after the town and Perlstein reached a court-stipulated agreement July 22 to restrict amplified noise at night.
The judge also issued a preliminary injunction sought by the town on July 23, but the parties did not receive formal notification until July 29. He said he would consider whether the delay should have any bearing on his decision.
Bent also called resident Mark Nesbit, a neighbor of the 371-acre campus, who said loud noise has been a continuing problem since July 5 when numerous busloads carrying the girl campers arrived.
He said the nighttime noise has at times been very loud and is disrupting his family's attempts to sleep. Nesbit added that on the night of July 15, "it caught me by surprise, because I knew there had been a restraining order."
Nesbit also was asked to play two audio segments from videos he had recorded of the noise during periods of loud noise on July 15 and July 25.
The police officers testified concerning their responses to calls and their report for several days, including July 15-16, July 25-26, July 30, July 31 and Aug. 1.
Efforts to comply
Perlstein testified that he and staff members have taken numerous steps to reduce the amount of noise reaching the neighbors that included dismantling a tent used for outdoor assemblies and the public address system.
He said he has spent thousands of dollars to install air conditioning in the gymnasium so that assemblies can be held there.
In addition, he said that noise from loud, un-amplified voices has been an unexpected problem, because he felt upon first coming to Bennington that the camp "would be in the middle of a private island" while on the spacious campus.
But after learning how close some residential areas are, Perlstein said, the camp staff has moved activities around the campus and rescheduled events and classes "almost on a daily basis" to develop a plan that wouldn't impact neighbors while allowing the campers to enjoy their time in the country.
He added that he immediately had to deal with and resolve complaints concerning fears of kids from the city possibly bringing COVID-19 to Bennington and that the BATS (Bennington Area Trail System) hiking trails through the campus would be closed off by the camp.
Because of those issues, he said, he was at first skeptical that neighbors actually were close enough to hear noise from the camp at unreasonable levels. But learning it was an issue for the neighborhood, Perlstein insisted he has continually adjusted camp program in an effort to reduce the noise impacts.
The camp organization now is called Camp Southern Vermont, LLC, a Vermont-based limited liability corporation. It originally was known as Zichron Chaim Inc.
Offer for campus
Perlstein also testified that in June he reached an agreement with the Southern Vermont College trustees to purchase the campus with a closing day of on or about Sept. 22. He added that the agreement could be affected by actions concerning the former college corporation in U.S. Bankruptcy Court-Vermont Division.
The SVC trustees did file for voluntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy early last month, but the case was dismissed soon after at the request of the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, who feared the estate could be held responsible for any liabilities involving having a camp operate on the campus. He said he had assumed the camp would be canceled.
The Chapter 7 filing was dismissed without prejudice and could be refiled, which is what town officials have said they expect. That court process typically leads to a dispersal of the real estate and other assets and usually includes an auction. In that event, other bidders besides the camp, which reportedly offered just over $3 million for the property, could seek to acquire the campus at a higher price.
Meanwhile, Perlstein said in court that he also concluded an agreement with the college trustees that allows the camp to occupy the campus until the closing date of a sale.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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