Common ground in Framingham Monday, August 8, 2005
Rick Holmes Metrowest Daily News
It's easy to see the discord that has erupted between Framingham's leading social service agencies and some of its most vocal activists.  Hard feelings are evident on lawn signs, in letters to the editor and in public meetings.  Efforts by the agencies to open new facilities have been met with stiff opposition, not just among neighbors but across town.

It takes a little more work to see the common ground between the agency leaders and their critics, but it is there.  Both sides acknowledge the need for better communication.  Both agree that more concrete information on the costs, benefits and impacts of the agencies would lead to a more constructive discussion.  And both would like to see stronger leadership from the board of selectmen.

The two sides of this debate share responsibility for the lack of communication.  Three agencies -- Wayside Youth and Family Services, Advocates Inc. and South Middlesex Opportunity Council -- declined to send representatives when invited to a recent selectmen's meeting.  That was bad community relations by people who have operated in Framingham long enough to know better.

Meanwhile, some neighborhood leaders have refused invitations by SMOC to sit down in a private living room to share information and concerns, demanding only public meetings before town boards.  But one doesn't preclude the other.  You can't call for better communication while at the same time refusing to join a conversation.

A bylaw change approved this week by Town Meeting may help improve communications.  Because some non-profits are exempted from binding review by the provision in state law known as Dover Amendment, the Planning Board will have only an advisory role in social service projects, but its hearing will provide a place where agencies and their neighbors can hash out the design and operational issues that arise with each project.

Town Meeting has also created a committee that will help generate the information that should help replace some of the emotions driving this debate with facts.  What do these programs cost in town services?  What benefits do they bring?  What is their impact on property values?  Is a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program feasible?  How have other communities handled these issues?  Answers to these questions and more can only encourage a more rational discussion.

The fact-finding and discussion should also involve decisions made on a regional and state level.  To what extent do state policies encourage a concentration of social services, and is that good for the clients and the host communities?

A proposed land use reform bill would give more oversight to local boards when it comes to Dover Amendment projects.  We're also intrigued by a suggestion from the agency critics that the 10 percent affordable housing goal written into Chapter 40B be applied to the Dover Amendment as well.  Agencies would still be able to bypass local zoning in most communities, but a more binding local review would apply in cities and towns that have crossed the 10 percent affordable housing threshold.

These agencies are primarily state contractors, and elected selectmen should not be given authority over their operations.  But agency executives and neighborhood activists alike have complained about a lack of leadership at the town level.  The selectmen and town manager oversee the planning department, which could be directed to identify appropriate sites for social services.

More facts and better communication could also help sort the broad rhetoric from the specific problems.  Even the agency critics agree that many of the programs help the community without disrupting the neighborhood.  Others -- specifically SMOC's "wet shelter," Spectrum's methadone clinic and the Salvation Army's free meals -- draw repeated criticism, less for the services they offer than the problems arising outside their buildings.  If they can work together, town officials, police, program managers and neighbors can identify specific solutions and find the resources to make them work.

There are no white hats and black hats in this showdown.  Neighbors don't harbor hostility for the clients of these needed facilities and the agency executives don't want to pillage Framingham's neighborhoods.  A little more respect for people's intentions and a little less inflammatory rhetoric would be a start toward working through these issues.

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