February 1st, 2014

Framingham ZBA blocks Walden’s new center proposal

In May 2013, Walden Behavioral Care, LLC signed a purchase and sales agreement to buy a 28-acre property at 518 Pleasant St. in Framingham, which is owned by the Marist Fathers. Although initial indications pointed toward approval for a special permit, the zoning board chair denied the request, which requires a unanimous vote. Subsequently, Walden and the Marist Fathers filed a joint suit in Massachusetts Land Court to overturn the board’s decision.

According to Stuart Koman, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Walden Center and Walden Behavioral Care, the proposal calls for the development of an additional 35,000 square feet beyond the existing building. “There would be two residential buildings, one for the treatment of adolescents with eating disorders and one for the treatment of obesity and weight management issues,” he says. “The additional square footage is minimal compared to what is allowed by right for single family residential uses. A public hospital could build 600,000 square feet by right.”

Framingham Zoning Board Chair Phillip Ottaviani nixed the proposal, citing neighborhood opposition as well as resistance to having a commercial endeavor in the area, according to Koman.

Koman notes that Walden agreed to approximately 30 conditions including the relocation of buildings, parking lots and lighting to allay any concerns. “The architect met with neighbors to make sure everyone was comfortable. Most actual abutters spoke in favor of the proposal,” he says.

Koman points out that, as a for-profit entity, Walden would contribute to Framingham’s tax roll. The property has not paid taxes for 50 years.

The Marist community resonated with Walden’s proposed use of the property, Koman says. “It had been a place of respite for priests. We would use it for reflection and healing,” he explains. In support of the purchase, Father John Harhager, chief financial officer for the Marist Fathers of Boston, wrote a letter of appeal to the Framingham Zoning Board urging them to reconsider the denial.

At press time, a hearing was scheduled for late January. Koman explains, “A judge will sit with all the parties to talk about the suit and determine what kind of evidence needs to be presented. He will see if there’s a chance for resolution without going through a trial.” The results of this hearing were not available at the time of publication.

Subsequently, under its non-profit sister corporation, Walden Center for Education and Research, Walden filed a second proposal in early December 2013. “This proposal includes all the other pieces of the last proposal plus a larger building of 26,000 square feet for a conference center, demonstration kitchen area, research floor with offices and various spaces to support research efforts,” Koman says. This proposal was filed under Dover amendment protection, which allows a non-profit educational corporation to use a property for educational purposes in any local zoning district, in accordance with limited site plan review and regulations by the zoning board. No formal action has taken place yet on this second proposal.

“As the case is in litigation, there will be no comments from zoning board members nor any written statements,” says Eugene F. Kennedy, AICP, department of community and economic development, town of Framingham.

By Phyllis Hanlon

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