Neighbors say officials ignores violations at Sage House in Framingham

Neighbors say officials ignores violations at Sage House in Framingham Thursday, February 14, 2008
D. Craig MacCormack 508-626-4429 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM - Neighbors say South Middlesex Opportunity Council officials have ignored violations by Sage House residents of the program's no-car, no-visitors rule, but members of the Zoning Board of Appeals say that can't be part of their deliberations.

The zoning board closed the appeal by several Sage House neighbors of the occupancy permit for Sage House at 517 Winter St. and will begin talks about its decision Feb. 26. The board's ruling is due by March 15.

The neighbors, led by Ardmore Road resident Larry Hendry, say the program for recovering drug addicts and their families should not be protected by the Dover Amendment because it is not a primarily educational use.

Some residents have jobs, neighbors said, and many of them have cars, which they hide around the neighborhood. Hendry presented several pictures of cars he said belong to Sage House residents to the board Tuesday night.

"I feel we have been deceived by SMOC," said Ardmore Road resident Ellen Casey, who is not part of the appeal. "They're out shopping. How much education is being done? Where is the resident manager? It's so obvious and it's getting worse."

Marisa Pizzi, the lawyer representing South Middlesex Opportunity Council, said education doesn't always have to happen in a classroom.

"These are people who are trying to become self-sufficient," she said. "Part of that is getting a job. That does not take away from the education they get at Sage House."

SMOC Chief Operating Officer Charles Gagnon said he will investigate the neighbors' claims about Sage House residents having cars, which he agreed is not allowed there. He also gave out his phone number for future complaints.

Gagnon said Sage House residents go through a staged education process during their six to 12 months in the home, with the final stage including job networking and other real-world skills.

Jason Talerman, lawyer for Hendry and the other neighbors who appealed the permanent occupancy permit, said none of that proves that education is the main purpose at Sage House.

"The primary benefit is shelter," he said. "No one is denying there's a benefit from shelter and no one's denying there's a secondary benefit from education. Is that enough to rise to the level of primary educational use?"

Town Meeting member Dawn Harkness, a former SMOC shelter worker who has also lived in a shelter, said she believes education is the focus at Sage House.

"You need to expand your view of what education means," she said, addressing neighbors who questioned how much education Sage House offers.

Board member Tom Levenson said he believed the criticism lodged by the neighbors was aimed at SMOC officials, not at the residents.

"I think people here are pointing fingers at the people who are running Sage House, not the ones who are living there," he said.

Town Meeting member Frank DeMarco said the latest claims of residents of SMOC facilities doing something different than what officials had promised is nothing new.

Pizzi tried to dismiss discussion of the Department of Public Health's March 2007 drug-related investigation of the former Sage House at 61 Clinton St., but zoning board Chairman Phil Ottaviani said it's part of the track record.

"They tell you, the Planning Board, the selectmen, whoever else what they're going to do and they do the opposite," said DeMarco. "They're making a mess out of the town."

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