SMOC asked for more details on Sage House Sunday, August 14, 2005
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Social service agency SMOC will have to cough up further documentation about its plan to turn a nursing home into housing for recovering addicts before the project can move closer to reality.

To get its hands on a building permit, the South Middlesex Opportunity Council must comply with several steps, including offering more details about why the project deserves wide protection under state law.

The agency claims that the program, called Sage House, is an educational use that falls under the so-called Dover Amendment, which prevents communities from placing unreasonable restrictions on certain projects.

"What are they teaching that they claim is exempt under the Dover Amendment?" said Building Commissioner Joe Mikielian, who denied SMOC's request for the permit on Thursday.

Mikielian declined to provide a copy of his denial letter Friday, but did disclose the requirements SMOC must meet.  The agency must also go through site plan review with the Planning Board as well as provide a floor plan and a parking plan.

SMOC attorney Jim Hanrahan said he was "puzzled" by the request to come up with documentation about the program because he believes the agency did that in its original application.  He said there is no doubt Sage House, which is slated to move into the former Framingham Nursing Home on Winter Street, qualifies as an educational use.

"People who haven't looked at the case under the Dover Amendment tend to apply Webster's dictionary definition of educational," he said.  "This one is well within the meaning of almost all the cases."

The Dover Amendment is frequently criticized by opponents for allowing too broad a definition of an educational use.

Hanrahan said SMOC continues to review the legality of a Town Meeting vote earlier this month requiring Dover Amendment projects to go through site plan review.  Any hearings before the board, he said, will only serve to give opponents the false expectation that it has the power to stop Dover Amendment project.

Planning Board Administrator Jay Grande said Friday that the the board can deny the proposal if it has an adverse impact on "public health, safety and welfare," which he cautioned is a high threshold.

"I don't think it's been completely tested either.  It's rare a project comes in that would have that level of impact," Grande said.

SMOC can mount a legal challenge to Mikielian's decision to send them to the Planning Board for review.

"We haven't decided on a strategy at this point.  There are a whole range of options available.  We're in the process of analyzing that now," he said.

Neighbors opposed to SMOC's proposal argued Sage House, a program for those recovering from substance abuse and their children, is not an educational use.  Neighbor Mary Westwater called it a "rooming house" where clients get bused to counseling meetings at other locations.

Westwater also said the Planning Board review will draw public attention to SMOC's projects.  The agency, she said, has gotten away with no oversight from the town, which has encouraged it to expand in Framingham.

"What's their plan in the long run?  We don't know, and they've been very clandestine in their operation," she said.

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