There's a price to pay for stupidity
By Taylor Armerding
Eagle-Tribune Writer

Date: October 19, 2000
  Hasn't somebody somewhere said, "If you can't do it because it's the right thing, then do it because it's the smart thing"?

If not, I'll be glad to claim it, and offer it for free to Haverhill officials charged with protecting the integrity of the local zoning ordinances, not to mention the peace, quiet and safety of the neighborhoods of Bradford. Because the city's effort to block a so-called "sober home" from occupying the old Lennox Nursing Home at 378 S. Main St., is definitely lacking in practical smarts.

Not only have the building inspector and Board of Appeals employed dubious legal reasoning to block the Twelve Step Education Program of New England Inc. from establishing a residence for recovering alcoholics there, they are also now rushing to approve another use for the building that they rejected less than a year ago.

Last night, the Board of Appeals was due to consider a request for a variance to put offices in the building -- the same thing the board had denied some months ago on the grounds that offices did not belong in a residential area. Legally, an applicant can't come back with the same proposal for two years. So the new application contains "material" changes. It still seeks offices on the first two floors, but there would now be an apartment on the third floor. Get it? With an apartment, the offices apparently will magically become an appropriate use.

It is possible that this transparent effort to keep "undesirables" out of the neighborhood could succeed, at least on the face of it. If the petition for offices is approved, the owner could sell to the developer who has proposed them. Still, city officials should consider their actions carefully.

Not simply because it's the right thing. Not because Philip J. Malonson, head of Twelve Step and a recovering addict himself, has a track record of success with such homes in nine other communities around Boston. Not because he has a local connection, as a graduate of Northern Essex Community College.

Not because it makes more sense, by the city's own zoning regs, to put a residential program in a residential neighborhood.

Not because neighbors, law enforcement officials and political leaders in other communities say the residents of Twelve Step homes are very good neighbors. Not because no sex offenders are allowed into the program. Not because there is no record of increased crime or neighborhood problems where such homes have been long established, because of the strict sobriety and other rules imposed on the residents of every house.

Not because this is a way for Bradford to provide a measure of support to some of their own residents who are trying to straighten out lives corroded by addiction.

No, just do it because it is the smart thing to do -- because the odds are overwhelming that not only will the city suffer damages losing a complaint filed by Mr. Malonson in Land Court, but could also suffer the wrath of the federal department of Housing and Urban Development for violations of the Fair Housing Act. In winning the battle, the city could lose the war.

Do it because Twelve Step is already well-established as a "nonprofit educational facility," and therefore can't be blocked by local zoning. Do it because city solicitors and town counsels in other communities are on record saying as much.

Do it because Mr. Malonson's attorney, Samuel A. Vitali of Lynn, has been through this drill many times -- successfully. "Haverhill is in the United States of America, and the Constitution applies even here. ... They may frustrate us here, but we're saying if they do, they will pay a price for it."

Like I said, the guy has done this many times before. I wouldn't bet against him here.

Taylor Armerding's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday in The Eagle-Tribune. He may be reached at 978-946-2213 or at tarmerding@eagletribune.com.