LONGMEADOW – While Town Counsel David Martel reiterated his opinion to the Select Board that nothing could be done to prevent the issuance of a certificate of compliance for a group home for men with traumatic brain injuries (TBI), members of the community and the board continued to push for a resolution that would prevent the existence of such a facility.
The crowd of residents stretched out the door of the meeting room at the Police Station for the three-hour discussion at the July 7 Select Board meeting regarding the legality of a pair of group homes on Redfern Drive and Converse Street proposed by ServiceNet
, a Northampton-based mental heath and human services nonprofit corporation.
Currently nine group homes operate within the town’s borders, a fact many who spoke admitted they were unaware of.
Martel explained the difference between a permit issue and a zoning issue and said he didn’t believe the town had the ability to restrict the operation of a group home as proposed in either case.
He did say, however, if the board or residents disagreed, they could pursue a zoning violation complaint with the building inspector. If he were to find no violation, they would then be able to appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The board ultimately determined that ServiceNet should be brought before the board to make a presentation regarding their intentions and requested the company delay occupying the home until the matter is resolved.
“They say they want to be good neighbors and if this is true, they should want to abide by this,” Selectman Alex Grant, who made the motion, said.
Representatives from ServiceNet were not present. Martel said the company’s legal counsel was on vacation and the company’s leadership was not comfortable appearing without representation.
While the majority of the board’s concerns revolved around the legitimacy of the claims made by the builders when altering the Redfern Drive property or the interpretation of the zoning bylaws
, the public comment portion of the meeting consisted primarily of concerns regarding community safety and property values.
Resident William Philips questioned whether residents of the facility would be a danger to the community, stating concerns including the fact that mental illness has been tied to recent mass shooting incidents.
Resident Mark Cress said while TBI patients would live there now, the company also runs homes for drug addicts, the mentally ill and the homeless and the town should get assurances that those types of residents would not move into Longmeadow.
He added that he had concerns regarding the employees of ServiceNet.
“Many of these employees are poorly compensated and less educated and I believe there is a possibility they could create problems for residents,” he said.
Dino Facente, who lives next to the proposed Redfern Drive facility, expressed health concerns, including the potential for medical waste being stored outside.
“I think there’s a place for a rehab home, but it shouldn’t be in a residential area,” he said.
His wife, Lisa, also spoke and became emotional when she stated her worries about the safety of her children who would be in close proximity of the home.
While many who spoke challenged notions that they were being discriminatory, resident Aaron Neiman said discrimination was the motivation behind residents’ objections.
“I reject the notion that disabled people need to justify their existence in a space,” he said. “It’s a morally incorrect and backwards way to look at this. Disabled people don’t need to justify their need to take up space, even in upper-middle class Massachusetts.”
He challenged hints that group home residents would pose a threat to the community.
“The facts and statistics do not bear that out,” he said. “There is more violence against those with mental disabilities.”
While Selectman Paul Santaniello disagreed, Martel explained that it was his opinion that Building Inspector Paul Healy, who was not present at the meeting, issued a legal building permit. As long as the work completed matched what was outlined in the permit, a certificate of compliance would be issued, he said.
“It was the opinion of the building inspector that this was a single family structure that is consistent with the allowed use,” Martel said. “I also spoke with the builder and the owner of the property. I agreed with the conclusion which had been reached by the building inspector and agreed with him that a building permit had been properly issued because in my view this was, in fact, not only structurally, but also in terms of its use, a single family home, which was a permitted use under the residence law of the town of Longmeadow.”
Addressing zoning concerns, Martel said that it was his opinion, based on legal precedent and discussions with ServiceNet, that the four men living in the proposed Redfern Drive home could be considered a family unit.
“Given the manner in which the four residents were going to live there, it was, in fact, a family as that term has been construed under Massachusetts case law. There is no definition of family in the Longmeadow zoning bylaw,” he said.
He explained his determination was made based upon the fact that the tenants of the home would have a “commonality of interest” in recovering from TBI, would live communally with no separate apartments in a “family-style setting.”
Martel said if the courts determined it was not a family, the group home would qualify for an exemption under the Dover Amendment, which states that a zoning bylaw cannot restrict the use of land owned by a nonprofit educational corporation.
Martel cited the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, explaining that the retraining of life skills qualified as an educational practice.
“Particularly for residents who had histories of mental illness, instruction in the activities of daily living is neither trivial or unnecessary for these people,” he said. “To learn or re-learn these skills is an important step toward developing their powers and capabilities of human beings, inculcating a basic understanding with how to cope with everyday problems and to maintain one’s self in society is incontestably an educational process.”
He added that the fact that the home provides overnight sleeping accommodations “does not destroy the educational aspect of the facility.”
Grant disagreed with Martel’s reading of the law. He said it was his opinion that based on the information he found on ServiceNet’s website and job listings, the services provided had more to do with caregiving than education.
He also challenged Martel’s idea of “commonality of interest,” explaining that the individuals who would be housed at the home did not have control over their situation. He argued that a group of students from Bay Path University would have a stronger argument that they were a family than residents of the group home.
Town Manager Stephen Crane said he and the board understood the concerns raised by residents, but were “bound by the law” and were working hard to operate within the law in order to protect the town.