ZBA members vow suit won't affect their vote

ZBA members vow suit won't affect their vote Sunday, February 10, 2008
D. Craig MacCormack 508-626-4429 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM - Zoning Board members say the possibility of having their names added as defendants to the federal discrimination lawsuit filed by SMOC in October will not affect how they vote on a proposed home for veterans.

The Zoning Board of Appeals will begin its deliberations on Larry's Place, a home for up to 18 veterans, on Tuesday night, after closing the hearing on the appeal by South Middlesex Opportunity Council Jan. 29.

Currently, SMOC is using the building at 90 Lincoln St. for office space.

SMOC's appeal came after Building Commissioner Michael Foley ruled that the home does not qualify for Dover Amendment protection because it does not have education as its primary goal. Foley said the program is a lodging house.

Three selectmen and four Planning Board members are among the 13 officials named as defendants in the case, filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, which charges the group with engaging in "a coordinated effort" to discriminate against disabled people.

"The lawsuit doesn't affect my thought process or my decision-making," said Zoning Board Chairman Phil Ottaviani, who added he expects the board could make its ruling Tuesday night.

"I know it's out there, but we handle things professionally and treat everyone fairly as far as I'm concerned," he said, adding he expects the decision to be appealed either by SMOC or neighbors based on the outcome.

If the deliberations extend beyond Tuesday, the Zoning Board and SMOC would need to agree to extend the deadline beyond Feb. 25. The ZBA isn't scheduled to meet again until Feb. 26.

Although federal courts tend to be more strict when it comes to amending a complaint, it can be done if justified, especially early in the process. The defendants' list also includes up to 10 John and Jane Does - in effect, placeholders that leave open the addition of other public officials.

There has been no indication by SMOC officials or their attorney that they plan to add more defendants' names to the lawsuit. SMOC spokeswoman Jane Lane had no comment on whether more defendants would be added.

The lawsuit "doesn't have any impact on any deliberations," said board member Steve Meltzer. "Whatever the law is, it is. I stick to whatever is before me. As long as I stick to my mandate, that's all I can do."

Fellow member Susan Craighead declined to discuss the case, saying it is under deliberation. In a recent debate about expanding the ZBA from three to five full members, though, she talked about the pressure a member who plans to vote against something before the board can feel about the vote.

"You don't want to be the one who sends the town into litigation," she said last month during a discussion with the Government Study Committee.

Christine Long, an alternate ZBA member who would vote on the case if one of the three full members is absent, said she votes using the same criteria in all cases.

"The way I'm going to vote in any project is I evaluate the zoning bylaw, evaluate the application and listen to the information I'm given," she said. "Although I'm sensitive to the fact that we're in litigation with SMOC, I've always voted according to the zoning bylaws."

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