Officials say they are monitoring SVC camp

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BENNINGTON — Town officials told residents Monday that inspectors are monitoring a youth camp on the former Southern Vermont College campus and working with the state to ensure that health and safety guidelines are followed.

But they added that the town's authority is limited to building and fire safety issues and doesn't extend to health issues, such as compliance with Vermont COVID-19 regulations for visitors from out of state.

Thus far, the town has found no violations of local building or other codes that are not being addressed by the Orthodox Jewish camp ownership, said Assistant Town Manager and Planning Director Daniel Monks.

He added that state officials the town is in regular contact with continue to believe the camp is meeting the governor's requirements for visitors during the epidemic.

However, Monks said during the board's videoconference meeting that noise complaints stemming from loud electronic music late at night have continued at times since the camp for about 350 girls from New Jersey and staff members opened on July 5.

"The noise issue is unresolved," he told the board Monday, adding that the town had compiled complaints to the police and is prepared to seek an injunction against the camp operators in Superior Court over noise ordinance nuisance violations if the problem continues. He said the camp, called Zichron Chaim, and its attorney were given notification of the town's intent.

Monks said Tuesday morning that there had been no further noise complaints to police overnight.

Resident concerns

The arrival on July 5 of busloads of campers and staff for a three-week event prompted an outpouring of complaints to town staff and local state lawmakers, with much of the concern focused on the camp organization being based in New Jersey, which has been a hot spot for COVID-19.

During Monday's meeting, Bennington state Reps. Mary Morrissey and Jim Carroll described fielding numerous calls from concerned residents, mostly over concerns the campers could spread the virus to the community.

Calling in to the videoconference meeting, Morrissey asked several questions of the town officials about how the camp's pending arrival might have "slipped under the radar" and become a surprise to townspeople.

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She asked what steps the town is taking to monitor the 371-acre campus and the camp. Saying she wanted to avoid hearsay, Morrissey said she hoped "to hear the facts of what is going on."

She also inquired about a rumor that campers were staying in the historically significant Everett Mansion on campus and that there had been sounds of construction there.

Monks said town inspectors have toured the campus buildings to check for fire or safety code violations and found that the historic stone mansion was not being used.

But he added that it was apparent that the mansion was not being maintained since the college closed in 2019, and that there was "significant concern about noticeable destruction," caused by leaks.

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Board Chairman Donald Campbell said that to date state health officials seem satisfied the camp is meeting restriction guidelines for visitors, as well as a key requirement that a camp be operated at no more than 75 percent of bed capacity during the epidemic.

Moshe Perlstein, the camp's director, has said the children were tested for COVID-19 before leaving New Jersey and will be tested each week while they are there. He added that because of the virus all day trips planned for the campers have been cancelled.

The staff members, who he said had gone through a quarantine prior to the camp, are the ones who will pick up supplies for the camp at local stores.

Monks and Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the town was not notified of the camp until June 29, and two days later town inspectors went through the buildings and issued a report with numerous fire and safety repairs that were required while issuing a temporary occupancy permit.

Those items included having a non-functioning smoke detector and many similar code violations, which the camp reportedly has hired local contractors to address.

Bankruptcy

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Complicating the camp's arrival and notification of the town was a decision by the SVC Corporation trustees to voluntarily enter the Chapter 7 bankruptcy and asset liquidation process on July 1 and dissolve the board of trustees.

Less than a week later, the court-appointed trustee overseeing the Chapter 7 process abruptly filed for dismissal of the case in U.S. Bankruptcy Court-Vermont District after learning that the camp had not been cancelled, as he had assumed. He said he could not readily determine whether the campus assets were insured to cover any safety or health liability with a summer camp in progress.

The court approved the dismissal July 4, and it was posted July 8. A further complication is that Zichron Chaim reached a lease and sale agreement with the SVC trustees in June, and now the fate of that agreement appears uncertain.

The Chapter 7 filing put a stay on the agreement and other legal efforts concerning the SVC real estate and other assets, and it allowed for an eventual auction of the property and possible acceptance of offers higher than the camp had agreed to.

However, the dismissal of the Chapter 7 filing has resulted in further uncertainty.

Perlstein said this week that he still has a purchase agreement but doesn't know who the camp would ultimately be dealing with in the transaction.

Monks said it is his best guess the Chapter 7 case will be refiled, which he said might be the only way for any party to receive title to the real estate free of the many claims by creditors of the former college, following court approval of an asset liquidation plan.

But Monks said the town does not have inside information about an agreement between private entities.

He stressed, however, that any use of the campus that is not for another college would require permitting by the town, including a review by the Development Review Board for change of use or other permits, and any decisions could be appealed to Superior Court.

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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