Framingham residents frustrated by what they believe is an overabundance of social service agencies in town have been granted the public hearing they had demanded from town officials.
Eighty residents signed a petition that was delivered to the Framingham Board of Selectmen at its meeting on Sept. 11. The social services forum called for in the petition will be held at Town Hall sometime in mid-October, with the final date to be determined at the next selectmen meeting, scheduled for Tuesday. .
"I hope to get somebody's attention and get the social service agencies to tone down their impact," said Tom O'Neil, a Precinct 8 Town Meeting member who spearheaded the effort.
Residents and officials say that the number of local agencies servicing high-risk populations has swelled over the past several years. Framingham is also at a disadvantage because most of the social service agencies are tax-exempt, they say, and properties owned by such agencies are taken off the tax rolls.
Last year, the town ordered a study in support of a potential PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, program. The committee's final report determined that over a 16-year period, there was a 600 percent increase in the number of social service agency sites in Framingham.
"Nobody wants to throw anybody out. We just want control of the rate of expansion," said Steven W. Orr, a member of the PILOT committee and moderator for frambors.sylang.net, a Framingham listserv (an automatic e-mailing service) where the issue has ignited debate. "It's about the fact that Framingham is being targeted without compensation."
However, churches, educational institutions, and state-owned land comprise a large percentage of tax-exempt properties in Framingham, said Alexis Silver, town human services coordinator, who was hired this year as a result of the PILOT study. "If you look at the big picture, [social services] are a smaller piece of the pie," she said.
Silver added that the town's hands are tied when it comes to preventing more agencies from coming to Framingham because of state laws - most notably, the Dover Amendment, which exempts educational and religious institutions from zoning regulations. At least a dozen new social service projects are now underway since the PILOT study was completed last year.
Laurie Lee, clerk for the PILOT committee, said that a symbolic moratorium could be a first step. "I believe a moratorium is something a community can do," she said. "It's a statement of policy and direction."
Town officials and some residents are considering legal action to put a brake on the increase in agencies. A group of neighbors formed the Woodcrest Acres Association to contest the purchase by Advocates Inc. of a five-bedroom home on William J. Heights that will house people with Prader-Willi syndrome. Prader-Willi is a rare genetic disorder marked by cognitive disabilities, low muscle tone, and chronic hunger that can lead to life-threatening obesity.
Dean Siflinger, an association board member, said the resident group is concerned with the staffing of the facility, and wants to make sure its stated use doesn't change.
"We're not asking them to state that they won't house a protected class, only that they won't change their use of the home," he said.
William J. Taylor, chief executive officer of Advocates, said agencies are limited by state antidiscrimination laws. If people met the Prader-Willi clients, they might see the agency's program as a more of a benefit to the neighborhood, he said.
"I don't know how to do that until people meet those who are living there," he said. "I think there's a lot of unfounded fear that causes some of this."
Some residents who signed the petition, such as Annette Alderman, a registered nurse, say that the Prader-Willi clients are not the real problem. "I think we're not so concerned about a handicapped population," she said. "We are concerned about a criminal element."
Those concerns may have been sparked in part by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, which purchased a former nursing home at 517 Winter St. and intends to convert it into a drug rehabilitation center for homeless clients.
Social service agencies are fighting what they say is a change in attitude in Framingham, a community that once welcomed them. Agencies such as the Wayside Youth & Family Support Network have filed suits against the town. In May, a judge overruled the decision of the Board of Selectmen to refuse a permit for Wayside's Lockland Avenue building, where 72 boys and girls will receive services from the Department of Social Services.
Taylor said Advocates would like to participate in the upcoming public forum. "I would hope the community would have a chance to express their views and come to some way to find common ground that doesn't violate anybody's rights," he said.