Local elected officials and residents urged state legislators on Friday to give urban communities like Springfield zoning control over addiction centers and group homes to prevent “oversaturation” of vulnerable neighborhoods.
Approximately 30 people attended a public hearing on the issue at City Hall, conducted by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery. The local officials and residents spoke in favor of a bill that would require developments defined as “substance use and alcohol addiction centers and clinics” to go through local zoning regulations and approvals.
Currently, a law known as the Dover Amendment exempts those facilities from zoning regulation if they offer some educational function, officials said. Such developments also do not need City Council approval.
Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, among the proponents of changing the Dover Amendment, said communities need to have some system of “checks and balances” over group homes. Some organizations use the Dover Amendment to avoid accountability, he said, and oversaturation leads to “quality-of-life issues” and reduced property values, and causes some neighbors to sell their homes and leave Springfield.
Sarno said he strongly supported the location of the Western Massachusetts Correctional Addiction Center on Mill Street. He said the facility has been “embraced” by the surrounding neighborhood, although some residents who raised concerns.
Jim Goodwin, president and chief executive of the Center for Human Development, said the Dover Amendment is a good law and protects well-run and well-regulated group homes from discriminatory zoning decisions. Changing the Dover Amendment would address zoning issues, not “bad” group homes, he said.
Residents cited the example of the Bridge Home, which opened a sober house on Worthington Street in 2016. The project was opposed by residents but allowed without City Council approval. It closed after less than a year, and the building was sold as a single-family residence.
Those speaking in favor of the bill included the lead sponsor, state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, and City Councilors Michael Fenton, E. Henry Twiggs and Melvin Edwards.
Residents of the several neighborhoods including McKnight, Maple High-Six Corners and the North End said there are too many group homes in concentrated areas, often among beautiful Victorian homes.
Maria Perez and Carmen Santana, both residents of the North End, said there are at least 16 group homes and substance abuse centers in their neighborhood.
“It’s staggering,” Santana said. “It should be spread through the state.”
Twiggs said of the 30 houses on Westminster Street in the McKnight neighborhood, where he lives, there are five group homes.
Edwards said a dozen or more group homes are concentrated within walking distance of each other in the Maple-Mill Street area. “You don’t have to drive to see there is an issue of oversaturation,” he said.
Goodwin said his agency has 47 group homes in the region, with seven in Springfield. CHD has a larger number of homes in Chicopee and Holyoke, and also has homes in communities such as Longmeadow and East Longmeadow, he said.
Goodwin, in response to allegations of poorly managed group homes in Springfield, said the Center for Human Development facilities are well-run, and under heavy regulation and inspection. In addition, investments are made to improve the properties that are purchased for group homes, he said.
Gonzalez praised CHD, but said there are overburdened areas of the city.
Under his bill, addiction centers would not be exempt from zoning regulations “without first obtaining the approval of the legislative body of the city or town” in cases where it is a low-income city or town, defined as a community with average median income equal to 60 percent or less of the average median income of the commonwealth.