Framingham one of state's top social service hosts Thursday, October 6, 2005
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- The number of state-licensed residential social service facilities in Framingham ranks among the top 10 in Massachusetts, beating out larger cities like Lowell, Fall River and Cambridge, according to a study released this week.

The report from the Worcester Regional Research Bureau found that Framingham is number 10 when it comes to being home to these programs.  The study, using information provided by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, identified 48 such facilities in Framingham.

Boston topped the list at 266, but Cambridge, which has almost 35,000 more people than Framingham, ranked number 22 with 27 facilities.  Waltham, with fewer people than Framingham, ranks fourth on the list.  It has 61 facilities.

The Worcester report could fuel the debate over social service agencies in Framingham.  Critics have long argued the town has more than its share of social service functions compared to other communities.

Laurie Lee, a member of a study committee examining how agencies like the South Middlesex Opportunity Council affect Framingham, said she planned to distribute the report to other committee members.  She pointed out that Framingham has more licensed facilities per capita than Worcester, based on the study's data.

"I saw us compared to many other communities, and I was quite frankly surprised," she said.

The research bureau compiled the report in the wake of a similar controversy in Worcester over the siting of social service programs.  There the spotlight has been on SMOC, which runs a wet shelter called People in Peril.  The agency has proposed to turn a former nursing home into sober housing for those staying at the shelter.

The report questions SMOC's contention that the plan falls under the state law known as the Dover Amendment, which provides broad protections to projects with religious or educational uses.  Education has been broadly defined, and the study calls for changes to the law so that it only covers facilities that have a predominately educational use.

Jarrett Conner, a senior research associate at the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, said communities should scrutinize projects that claim protections under the Dover Amendment and be ready to challenge any "borderline cases."

"Cities and towns should be very aware of how important their zoning rules are, and they should take seriously any claim to be exempt from those rules, not out of nastiness or mean spiritedness, but out of what's in the best interest of the community," he said.

The Worcester Regional Research Bureau describes itself as a private nonprofit "dedicated to conducting independent, nonpartisan research" about Worcester and central Massachusetts.  According to its annual report, it is funded by foundations, businesses and individuals.

In Framingham, SMOC argues its plan to turn a former nursing home into housing for recovering addicts falls under the Dover Amendment.  Peter Adams of Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl, which formed when SMOC's proposal became public, said the Worcester report supports the group's position about social services here.

"I'm glad to see this hard data coming out to back us," he said.  "That's really been STEPPS' rallying cry from the beginning -- we're bearing a disproportionate share of these services."

The Worcester report counted licensed residential facilities contracted by the Department of Mental Retardation, the Department of Transitional Assistance, the Department of Youth Services, the Department of Mental Health, and the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.

It does not include nonlicensed social services like less-structured sober housing programs, for example.  But Conner said the information still provides a reliable picture of the concentration of social service facilities in different communities.

The study did not examine how many people live in these licensed facilities, which SMOC's planning director, Gerard Desilets, said is an important factor to consider.  SMOC has four licensed programs in Framingham.

The report's recommendation of restricting the definition of education under the Dover Amendment came under fire from social service providers.  Desilets said the law along with the federal Fair Housing Act are intended to provide a broad definition of education to protect people.

Leo Sarkissian, executive director of the Arc of Massachusetts, a Waltham-based organization that advocates for people with developmental disabilities, said limiting the definition "totally distorts the meaning of the legislation."

Sarkissian also dismissed concerns that some communities may be too concentrated with social service facilities.

"These are your neighbors," he said about residents of programs.  "They need to live somewhere, and they need supports to do that with."

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