SMOC, Framingham engage in new battle

SMOC, Framingham engage in new battle Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Dan McDonald 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Already enmeshed in a legal battle against Framingham officials, the South Middlesex Opportunity Council is once again at odds with the town.

This time the conflict centers on the organization's wish to move its administrative headquarters from 300 Howard St. to a 5-acre industrial site on 15 Blandin Ave.

At the heart of the matter is the Dover Amendment - the common moniker for Massachusetts General Law Chapter 40A Section 3.

That provision exempts corporations that meet guidelines, such as offering educational programming, from certain zoning requirements.

Jim Hanrahan, general counsel for SMOC, said the lease for the antiquated Howard Street building expires in July 2010.

In addition to acting as the administrative belly of the organization, said Hanrahan, the facility holds several classrooms, a career center and hosts a slew of human service programming. Those functions would continue at the new location.

However, the planned move has hit a snag.

The town's inspectional services division has rejected SMOC's attempt to have the project qualify under the Dover Amendment.

"We disagree with the factual finding," said Hanrahan.

Specifically, that department found the proposal did not qualify because it did not have the educational use that is crucial in SMOC earning the Dover exemption.

Building Commissioner Mike Foley released a statement yesterday standing by his decision.

"I reviewed very carefully SMOC's application for exempt use status at 15 Blandin Ave., together with all documents submitted in support," Foley wrote in an e-mail. "Those materials fail to show that the primary or dominant purpose of the site would be educational in nature. I continue to maintain that my decision was entirely appropriate and consistent with Massachusetts law."

SMOC is taking its case to the town's Zoning Board of Appeals. The matter is on the agenda for next Tuesday at 9 p.m. inside the Blumer Room in the Memorial Building.

Of the current facilities, Hanrahan said, "The space itself is not terribly efficient; it needs a complete makeover."

The future of the project may very well hinge upon such a Dover qualification. Wthout it, SMOC would have to apply for a special permit as the project is in a manufacturing zone and the proposal would be subject to full site plan review by the Planning Board, said Hanrahan.

If the project meets the Dover qualifications, no special permit would be needed, said Hanrahan, while the town may only attempt a partial site review "to determine if the project meets dimensional regulations."

One of the social service sector's major detractors in town, the Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl, cites the Dover Amendment as a legal loophole that allows social service agencies like SMOC to grow.

The group's Web site dedicates a page to the state law.

"Institutions are free to go wherever they want, as often as they want, regardless of how many Dover properties are in town," reads the Web site. "Consequently, they congregate where property values are (relatively) low, like Framingham, which is far cheaper than most surrounding towns like Sudbury. This keeps property values low, so the nonprofits keep congregating."

That group was formed in 2005 in protest to what some deemed to be a social service explosion and a growing number of tax-exempt properties in Framingham, including a home for recovering drug addicts and their families at 517 Winter St. - the site of a former nursing home.

Released in May 2006, the Final Report of the Social Service PILOT and Comparative Impact Committee says social service organizations have grown from 14 to 40 between 1996 and 2006. The number of sites under social service management increased 600 percent during that 10-year period. One of the things this committee studies is the impact tax-exempt organizations have on the town.

In fiscal 2006, social service agencies owned more than $38 million of property in town, while the town waived a levy of $515,751 on those tax-exempt properties that year, according to that report.

SMOC's lawsuit against the town was filed last fall, names several town officials as defendants, and has drawn a maelstrom of controversy.

The suit, which was filed in federal court, claims town officials attempted to stymie SMOC's efforts to expand services to the disabled in town. Specifically, an attempt to open Larry's Place, a veterans shelter, and plans to move the Sage House Program, a residential drug treatment program, were delayed, according to SMOC's claims.

However, the town's lawyers have maintained there was no conspiracy to block SMOC's expansion efforts and that the various municipal boards in town "are not there to act as a rubber stamp committee."

Earlier this year Adam Simms, who represents some town officials in the case said, "The (defendants) were exercising their First Amendment rights."

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