Shelter will face a battle: Framingham selectmen
will back fight to close SMOC facility
Sunday, July 30, 2006
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- The clash over the wet shelter downtown is intensifying as the town prepares an investigation of the facility and selectmen signaled a willingness to back a legal fight to close it.

The board last week voted to verify what activities occur at the homeless shelter that protect it from zoning restrictions, instead of just relying on information provided by SMOC, the agency that runs it.

"I think we just need to do our due diligence and make sure what they say is actually going on, and that it's educational in nature," said selectmen Chairman Dennis Giombetti.

The move marks another step by selectmen toward a possible legal showdown to close the controversial facility, something board members have been calling on SMOC to do.

For years, the Irving Street shelter has been untouchable because the town has agreed that its use is educational and therefore protected by the powerful state law known as the Dover Amendment.

But selectmen are beginning to question that contention, saying they want town officials to confirm that what takes place there is educational, a use that has been broadly defined by the courts.

"I want more verification than just 12 o'clock AA meeting," said Selectman Jason Smith, referring to a document provided by SMOC.  "To me, this is inadequate."

How the town will go about the investigation at the shelter was unclear last week.  Town Manager Julian Suso met with Town Counsel Chris Petrini and Building Commissioner Joe Mikielian Thursday afternoon, but Suso said he was "not at liberty" to go into detail about the meeting.

The three did not settle how they will go about confirming SMOC's claims, the town manager said, and would continue to meet to discuss "a number of challenging issues."

The wrangling over the shelter comes as SMOC moves ahead with plans to close the facility by replacing it with other housing units.  The Framingham-based agency unveiled a plan in June to shut down all its emergency shelter beds in MetroWest within two years.

In a July 21 letter to Giombetti, SMOC Executive Director Jim Cuddy asked the chairman "to cease the divisive public statements" about the shelter, pointing to Giombetti's statement that SMOC was holding the town "hostage" with its plans.

"Claiming that SMOC is holding the Town hostage is neither helpful nor true," Cuddy wrote.  "Demanding that SMOC close the Common Ground shelter immediately is completely unproductive and creates a significant obstacle to working together" to end regional homelessness.

Giombetti declined to comment about the letter.

SMOC's attorney, Jim Hanrahan, said he could not react to the town's intent to investigate the shelter because officials had not contacted the agency about their plans.  He called the inquiry "a bit unusual."

"I don't know where they're going with this," he said.

In a letter last week, Hanrahan outlined how the shelter connects homeless individuals to a range of services that "will lead to sobriety, employment and permanent housing."  Every guest is assigned a case worker, he wrote, and participates in an individual service plan.

The letter included a "typical" weekly schedule of events, some of which take place at the shelter, while others are off site, Hanrahan said.  Selectmen want to further investigate those activities.

The town's investigation could set off a process to close the shelter.  If Mikielian, the building commissioner, finds the use is not educational and therefore not protected by the Dover Amendment, he says the shelter would violate the zoning in its district.

Selectmen also voted Tuesday night to express a willingness to lend help to any challenge to a ruling from Mikielian that the shelter is protected.  Such a challenge could come from a neighbor of the shelter.

Hanrahan insisted the facility's predominant use is educational as defined by the courts, though Petrini, the town counsel, has said the town could claim otherwise.

"It's a whole comprehensive educational program that is geared to a particular person coming into the shelter," Hanrahan said.  "It's not just open the door, sleep and leave in the morning."

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