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Neighbors protest Walden’s plan for clinic

Walden Behavioral Care has signed a sales agreement on the Marist property in Framingham, visible from the Mass. Pike.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File 2000

Walden Behavioral Care has signed a sales agreement on the Marist property in Framingham, visible from the Mass. Pike.

Opinions remained sharply divided at a Framingham Zoning Board of Appeals hearing last week on whether to allow a clinic for people with eating and mood disorders to open in the former Marist Brothers retreat center on Pleasant Street.

Residents opposed to the proposal have been gathering signatures on a petition against the proposal by Walden Behavioral Care LLC to operate the clinic.

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At the hearing Tuesday night, opponents led by Paula Jacobs turned in the latest collection of signatures to the zoning board; Jacobs said the total has reached at least 500 names.

The board said that it has also received a petition signed by about 25 residents who support the Walden facility.

The zoning board will take up Walden’s proposal again on Sept. 17, and will focus on the impact the facility would have on traffic.

The company, which is based in Waltham and operates facilities in several sites across the state, has signed a purchase-and-sale agreement to acquire the sprawling property from the Marist Fathers of Boston, pending approval of its plans for a clinic. It would continue to offer some psychiatric services in Waltham.

Walden needs a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals to operate its facility on the property, which is in a residential area.

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At the heart of the debate has been whether Walden’s proposal is in keeping with the existing neighborhood. Residents told the zoning board that giving Walden a permit would rob the neighborhood of its residential character.

Walden’s proposal calls for an 80-bed treatment center, plus office space and parking, that would utilize the retreat center’s main building.

Many residents at the crowded hearing last week continued to express distrust at Walden’s plans.

Jacobs said that while Stuart Koman, Walden’s founder and top executive, holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, “he is a businessman, and Walden is a commercial enterprise . . . What happens when the eating-disorder business is not as profitable?”

As Walden’s application for a special permit works its way through the zoning board’s hearing process, proponents and opponents are campaigning online and petitioning neighbors to their cause .

Walden has advertised on at least one news site, promising to be a caring, compassionate neighbor that is a good listener.

The ad links to a website, www.walden-maristcenter.com, that details Walden’s plans for the property, and includes renderings of the proposed facility, links to news articles and editorials on the project, and an open letter from Koman.

The campaign is an outgrowth of Walden’s practice of using social media and other electronic outreach to provide knowledge and support to its patients, Koman said in an interview.

“We’re not spending a lot of time trying to change minds any more. We’re trying to make sure the information is clear and consistent,” Koman said. “We’re more about responding to questions than trying to get a message out, not trying to convince people who are going to stick to their perceptions of us.”

Meanwhile, Walden is forming the “concept” for a citizens advisory board, Koman said, that would help “allay fears of neighbors to the extent possible,” and help gauge the community’s reaction to certain types of patients getting treatment at Walden.

At this point, however, most residents who have spoken out appear already decided.

When asked in an interview whether Walden could do anything to change her mind, Jacobs said, “I think that would be impossible, unless he was going to build residential homes. It just doesn’t fit. That’s the main issue.”

John Swinconeck can be reached at johnswinc@ gmail.com.

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