Antipoverty group sues Framingham over rights October 25, 2007
Jonathan Saltzman Globe West
Framingham officials illegally manipulated town zoning laws, and several residents spread inflammatory claims as part of a conspiracy to delay the expansion of a group home for recovering drug addicts and their families, a local antipoverty agency said in a federal lawsuit filed yesterday.

The suit, filed in Boston by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, said town officials and a handful of residents have engaged in a "coordinated effort to rid the Town of Framingham . . . of its disabled population" and described clients online and elsewhere as "problem people," "charity cases," "human waste," and "dregs of society."

The council, with an annual operating budget of $60 million, is one of the area's largest nonprofit antipoverty agencies and is based in Framingham.  The 99-page complaint is the third federal suit by a nonprofit social service agency in the past two years alleging that the town violated federal and state civil rights laws in an effort to derail programs for the sick or needy.

The suit said Framingham recently went so far as to start an illegal program to attempt to pressure tax-exempt social service groups to "voluntarily" contribute to the town.  Plaintiffs described the move as "protection money."  Nonprofit groups are exempt from paying property taxes.

Framingham's "ultimate message is loud and clear: 'We don't want those people in our town,' " said the suit by the council, which operates at least 75 programs in Framingham and other area towns and serves more than 21,000 people a year, including battered women, disabled veterans, and poor children.

In interviews with the Globe yesterday, however, Framingham officials and local residents who were sued said they had acted legally, out of concern that their town has become a magnet for nonprofit social service programs.

Some Town Meeting members are trying to curb the growth of other social services agencies.  They have complained that nonprofit social service agencies drain municipal services and depress surrounding property values.

Yesterday, Steven Orr - a Town Meeting member who is also the webmaster of Frambors, a prominent community website - said that earlier this year he cracked down on disparaging comments on the site.

Orr, who was named as a defendant, said the suit was "completely, unbelievably unfair."

"There is no place in the state that has done more to help people with social service needs" than Framingham, said Orr.

The 18 defendants are the town, four Town Meeting members, three of the five members of the Board of Selectmen, four Planning Board members, as well as former and current town officials and two residents.

The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and asks the court to order the town to obey civil rights laws.  The lawsuit asserts violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act; people with substance abuse problems can be classified as disabled.

A working-class, bedroom suburb of 66,000 people that has called itself "America's largest town," Framingham suffered enormous blows to its economy when major employers such as Dennison Manufacturing Co. pulled out of town.  In the early 1990s, with downtown shops boarded up, town officials welcomed the South Middlesex Opportunity Council as one of the few investors seeking to buy and renovate decrepit properties.

But in recent years, the relationship between the town and the Framingham-based council has turned bitter.

The focus of the recent fight was Sage House, a residential treatment program that the council opened on Clinton Street in Framingham 16 years ago.  In June 2005, the council bought a 2 1/2-story former nursing home on Winter Street so it could roughly double participation in the program and accommodate as many as 15 families.

Opponents began a campaign against the project almost immediately. Peter C.S. Adams, a Town Meeting member, started a group called Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl, or STEPPS, and created a website that condemned the project and characterized it as a "homeless drug rehab shelter."

Howard M. Cooper, a lawyer for the council, said the description is false because some of the clients do have homes and Sage House is not a shelter or a detoxification facility.  "It's a residential treatment center by people who are recovering," he said in an interview.

STEPPS also distributed a memo to the selectmen that said Framingham was in danger of becoming "SMOCINGHAM," a play on the council's acronym, said the suit.

In addition, a Framingham resident started a website, "STOP SMOC," that posted the addresses of Jerry Desilets, a top official with the opportunity council, and James T. Cuddy, the executive director, with links to maps to their houses, the suit said.  That posting referred to Desilets by name and said, "Let's see how fast his neighborhood can tar and feather him."

At the same time, town officials employed numerous tactics to stall the project, including requiring the council to appear at seven Planning Board hearings, the suit said.

The council finally received a temporary occupancy permit for the expanded center on Aug. 23, but a town resident has appealed the ruling.  The appeal is before the town Zoning Board of Appeals.

Twenty-nine people in nine families live in the residence.

Town officials named in the suit defended themselves yesterday, saying they had done nothing wrong.

Orr said the Sage House expansion will cause the values of neighboring houses to fall and increase demands on the town's public schools.

Adams said the goal of the suit was to squelch free speech about a legitimate issue, the influx of social service agencies to Framingham.

"It has never been our mission to rid the town of anyone disabled," he said.  "The stated mission of STEPPS is to check the rate of growth of social services in Framingham."

He acknowledged some postings on Frambors and on the STEPPS site were "inflammatory."

"But they are not defamatory, because truth is the number one defense, and as far as I know everything I said is true," he said.

This is the third recent lawsuit asserting civil rights violations filed by a social service agency against the town.  In May, a mediator ordered the town to pay $80,000 to Wayside Youth and Family Support Network Inc. to settle claims the town officials illegally blocked a permit for a group home on Lockland Avenue to house 72 boys and girls in DSS care.

In August 2006, Great Brook Valley Health Center Inc. filed suit in US District Court after the town refused to allow them to open a health center for poor clients in downtown Framingham.  That case is pending.

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