Summer camp fined; forced closure rejected
BENNINGTON — The youth camp operating on the former Southern Vermont College campus has been fined $1,600 over multiple nighttime noise complaints from neighbors, but a forced shutdown of the camp was rejected in a ruling by Judge Cortland Corsones in Bennington Superior Court Civil Division.
The judge also said in a ruling issued Friday afternoon that the camp operators "may purge themselves of contempt and payment of the fine by full compliance with [his prior preliminary injunction order] between now and the closing of the camps on approximately Sept. 1."
The town, which had sued camp director Moshe Perlstein and Camp Southern Vermont, LLC, after receiving multiple noise complaints since July 5 from neighbors living around the campus, also was awarded a reasonable level of legal costs in the matter, pending approval of the amount by the court.
Following a three-hour evidentiary hearing Wednesday, attorney Merrill Bent, representing the town, had asked for fines and punitive penalties over the repeated noise complaints and court order violations and asked that further use of the campus for a camp be prohibited and that the site be vacated within 72 hours.
Bent told Corsones that the town "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."
Approximately 350 Orthodox Jewish teens and staff members from the New Jersey-New York area are staying in buildings on the campus.
"The judge agreed with the town that the camp clearly violated the court's orders on at least four occasions," Bent said Friday. "Although the court held the defendants in contempt, the penalty imposed was de minimus [minimal]. It remains to be seen whether the camp will follow through on the director's promise to reduce the noise complaints to zero. New violations will result in further action through the court."
In his decision, Corsones also wrote: "While defendants have made efforts to comply with the court's orders, their violations have been willful and have occurred soon after each order was issued. In addition, the town made many attempts through its police officers to warn defendants against the ongoing violations, which warnings were not taken to heart by defendants. Finally, defendants' actions have had a significant effect on the quality of life of the neighbors."
Perlstein said of the decision, "This is a tremendous victory in that the judge realized how hard we are trying" to reduce noise affecting the neighbors.
He said the camp has received no complaints for several days.
"People have a right to complain," he said, but reiterated that camp staff members have worked continually to reduce noise, such as by moving events to different areas of the 371-acre campus and eliminating a public address system and taking down a large tent used for assemblies.
Air conditioning is being installed in the college athletic center, he said, and large group events will be moved inside.
"We have addressed these things over time," he said.
Perlstein also noted that a major effect of the COVID-19 epidemic has been to prevent the campers from their normal trips, which had been planned for various tourism or other sites in the region. Then, fewer events would have been scheduled on the campus, he said, and neighbors also would be less likely to be homebound and hearing noise from the camp.
Being able to take trips off-site "would be a game-changer," he said. "I'm looking forward to next year when we can leave the campus."
The economic impact of the campers and staff spending money in the area would also be many times greater than this summer because of COVID-19, he said.
He said his goal is to build a positive relationship over time with the community through annual camps at the site.
Perlstein said he still intends to purchase the campus under an agreement he and the camp reached in June with the trustees of the former college.
The campus real estate and other assets are, however, likely to be involved in Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings, he said, before the property can be sold.
The trustees on July 1 voluntarily entered the college corporation into the Chapter 7 process — usually leading to final dispersal of property and likely an auction — but that process was halted soon after.
That was over concerns there might be uninsured liabilities as long as a camp was in progress on the site. It is expected the college assets will again be placed in Chapter 7 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court-Vermont Division once the summer camps end.
The camp currently is partway through a three-week camp for teenage boys, after holding an earlier camp for a similar number of girls.
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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