Ex-selectman Kahn urges ruling on SMOC lawsuit August 20, 2010
Michael Mortonr 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- A former selectman seeking to resolve a lawsuit by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council has written the judge, telling him that "positions have hardened" and implicitly urging him to rule on a motion made a year ago.

John Kahn saya he has no ties or direct involvement in the case other than a desire to see the dispute settled. SMOC, a large nonprofit social services agency, sued the town and several of its leaders in 2007, arguing they had blocked program expansion and violated federal housing law.

SMOC angered many leaders and residents by asking in its suit to have the town placed in receivership, meaning courts would have final say on decisions normally made by the Planning Board.

During a hearing in July 2009, U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock heard a motion to dismiss the case and questioned both sides to determine if any of SMOC's claims should go before a jury.

Woodlock asked about evidence purporting to show that Planning Board members referred to a "silver bullet" against a SMOC proposal. The judge also suggested that the agency turn over several parcels to help along another project and asked about the nonprofit's willingness to make payments to make up for its tax-exempt status.

He did not schedule an additional court date, however, and has not issued a ruling.

In an interview yesterday, Kahn, a retired attorney, said he knows Woodlock has been busy with other cases. But he also suspects the judge wanted to allow time for passions to cool and for the two sides to settle out of court, a possibility he dismisses in his Aug. 6 letter.

"So far as is publicly known, their positions have hardened and their intransigence in opposing public efforts to induce negotiations has intensified," he wrote.

Town attorney Christopher Petrini said the town was aware of Kahn's letter but declined further comment, citing an apparent gag order from the judge.

SMOC spokeswoman Jane Lane said the agency also did not want to address the contents of the letter, other than the reference to hardened positions.

"Both SMOC and the town of Framingham continue to maintain a policy of open-door communication," she said.

SMOC submitted a settlement proposal, ultimately rejected, before the 2009 hearing. It did not involve money, but did ask for the formation of two joint commissions, one meant to improve relations between the town and social service agencies and one to review local zoning bylaws.

Specifically, the second group would have examined which projects fell under the Dover Amendment, a state law that permits projects with certain uses including religious and educational to bypass local zoning.

It's unclear why the proposal failed. Town Meeting member Herb Chasen called the breakdown in negotiations a shame, with the ongoing saga hurting both sides.

"If you go to court, you have winners and losers and you have spin," said Chasen, who has tried to unofficially mediate. "It can get pretty nasty - and expensive."

The town has already spent $750,000 defending the lawsuit; the agency will not talk about its expenses.

Chasen believes there have been recent "feelers" between the parties, and thinks Woodlock could provide some encouragement and possibly make them sit down together.

"I think both sides would like to get this settled," he said. "It's just a matter of the dance."

Kahn is less optimistic, calling the communication mere "twitches," rather than overtures. Both sides, he said, are "reluctant to appear to be blinking first."

"I think a settlement can be achieved if neither party is intent on saying, 'Look, we ground the other one into the dirt,"' he said. But, he added, a softening is not apparent, and SMOC likely views the case as having ramifications beyond just Framingham.

Chasen pointed to a recent selectmen's meeting as a hopeful sign, when the agency's executive director secured a 5-0 vote needed for programming. He said the agency wants a "road map" for its relations with the town.

"How we get along together," Chasen said. "That's the big question."

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