Zoning dispute turns ugly in Freetown

For more than three centuries, Freetown’s attitude toward land and development was pretty much described by its name. The 38-square-mile town next to New Bedford had no zoning restrictions at all until 1995. Before then, Selectman Mark Holland says, “a nuclear plant could be built alongside a house.” Freetown has finally caught up to the rest of the state–Acushnet and Berkley are the only towns left without zoning laws–but its efforts to make some sense out of development have been tainted by charges of racism.

Just 20 percent of the town has been set aside for industrial use, but that area happens to include Freetown’s only non-white neighborhood: Braley Road, home to approximately 100 low- to-moderate-income families, most of them Cape Verdean and some of them with roots in Freetown going back five generations. The residents are fighting back, but some town officials say the neighborhood has always contained industry. And they fret that the Braley Road resistance is costing the town badly needed jobs.

Freetown Quick Facts

Founded: Incorporated in 1683

Population: 8,522

Town Meeting: Open


  • Freetown covers 38 square miles of Bristol County. Bordered by Berkley, Lakeville, Rochester, Acushnet, New Bedford, Dartmouth, and Fall River. Freetown is located 37 miles from Boston and 23 miles from Providence. The Median price of a single-family home is $184,500.
  • The town served as a shipbuilding center until 1848. It was also one of the state’s first towns to have a trout hatchery. In addition to agriculture, the town’s economy has been dominated by tanneries and mills along the Assonet River.

Braley Road is about a quarter-mile from Route 140, in the East Freetown section of town. It can still be characterized as rural, with most families living in modest ranch houses. Cape Verdeans have lived in the area for more than a century, many of them drawn here by fishing jobs and farmwork. Until now, they have not been highly visible in local politics, and no one from the neighborhood serves on the town’s board of selectmen or zoning board.”People call this area ‘Little Africa’ and ‘Tobacco Road,'” complains the Rev. Curtis Dias, a longtime activist and native of the neighborhood.

The residents of Braley Road have had a rocky relationship with local government for at least 30 years, but didn’t seek outside allies until this June. That’s when Dias called the US Justice Department. The feds are now investigating the Freetown Board of Selectmen and the Zoning Board of Appeals to determine whether they violated the Fair Housing Act when they designated Braley Road for industrial use. To date, the US Attorney’s office has not commented publicly on the case.

Dias, who has headed the neighborhood’s Calvary Pentecostal Church for seven years, claims that Cape Verdeans are being squeezed out of the neighborhood they’ve lived in for five generations. Problems began in the 1970s, when several trucking companies moved onto Braley Road. Dias says that the street was quickly overrun with hundreds of trucks a day. Then, in 1980, the town agreed to let the state highway department construct a barn for snowplows and sanding trucks on Braley Road. When road salt seeped into neighborhood wells, the water became undrinkable and the salt damaged many of the residents’ pipes and appliances. Eventually, the state responded to complaints by connecting the neighborhood to a New Bedford water source, but not before numerous appliances had to be replaced at the homeowners’ expense. Residents now say that the water pressure in the area is so weak that it’s impossible to flush a toilet and fill a glass of water at the same time.

While the Braley Road residents were still trying to cope with the snowplow barn, an auto-salvage business moved onto the street. Any hope that it would be an unobtrusive neighbor went up in smoke when its tire pit caught fire, sending black clouds over the area for a week. Residents say that the fire site still hasn’t been cleaned up properly.

By the time Freetown enacted its zoning law in 1995, the residents of Braley Road had had enough. Led by Dias, they have fought harder than ever to keep the neighborhood residential. Early this year, they packed zoning board meetings and successfully fought against an asphalt plant that had been slated for their neighborhood. Next they protested a plan by TJX Cos. to build an 800,000-square-foot warehouse, employing 900 people, on Braley Road. TJX, frustrated by the delay and opposition, gave up and looked elsewhere.

Then things got nasty in town. The day after the company’s decision, Dias’s home was ransacked. The local police offered personal protection, he says, but no one was ever charged with the break-in. Then the zoning board turned down his request for the renewal of a zoning variance he needed to add a room to his church. A unanimous vote is required for the approval of zoning variances. But a single member of the board voted against the renewal: chairman Gerald Velozo, whose father-in-law owns the 60-acre parcel of land on Braley Road where TJX had hoped to put its warehouse. (Velozo had voted to approve an identical variance for the church a year earlier.) Dias is now suing the town in hopes of reversing the decision, which he is convinced is retaliation for his anti-development activism.

“We have been fighting the industrialization of Braley Road for years, but things keep getting built here, and no one will help us,” says Dias. “In this town, a few powerful businessmen call the shots.”

Lawrence Ashley, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, disputes Dias’s characterization of Freetown politics. He says that he’s worked with the reverend and the residents of Braley Road on numerous occasions over the years–getting the street widened, for example, and implementing measures to cut down on speeding. He says he was stunned to hear the zoning process described as racist. “It troubles me that anyone would even suggest [that],” Ashley says. “It’s just so far from the truth.”

Ashley resents Dias’s charges, and the damage they have done to Freetown’s reputation. But even more, he laments the economic development opportunities lost in the battle over Braley Road.

“There have been several large manufacturing companies in New Bedford that have had lay-offs or closed down, and those people need jobs,” Ashley says.”TJX would have made a big difference to a lot of families. I think it’s a case of ‘not in my back yard.'”

He notes that a 600-acre parcel of land across the street from his house, in the Assonet section of Freetown, has been zoned as industrial, adding that he wouldn’t fight development there. But so far, no industrial uses have been planned for Ashley’s neighborhood, which is across town from Braley Road and is the only other residential area zoned for industry.

“There’s a need for good-paying jobs in this area.”

State Rep. Robert Koczera, a Democrat from New Bedford who also represents a section of Freetown including Braley Road, supported the TJX proposal for much the same reason that Ashley did. “That project would have been good for the economy in the region, and it was a significant loss when it fell through,” he says. “Braley Road has a large tract of land in good proximity to Route 140, which leads to Routes 24 and I-195, and it could be used for economic development. There’s a need for good-paying jobs in this area.”

Koczera adds that Braley Road residents have always lived with a certain amount of industrial activity. Indeed, long before the trucking companies moved in, several residents operated cottage businesses out of their homes–making wooden pallets, for example. Koczera says that this history of industrial use, rather than racism, led to Freetown’s zoning decision.

Braley Road resident Edwin Lopes, 63, whose family has lived on the street for five generations, doesn’t dispute Koczera’s point, but he’s still angry about the treatment of his neighborhood. “I’m not sure it’s racism against Cape Verdeans,” he says. “It’s about targeting poor people who are powerless. It’s a classic case.”

“Property values have gone down because of how the road has changed,” Lopes adds. “The most we could hope to get for our houses would be about $150,000, and we could never buy something else for that price. We’d end up in tenements and we don’t want to move anyway. But we’re a very small voice in this town.”

Dias says that Freetown has historically ignored both the land and the people along Braley Road. Now, he laments, the town has discovered the value of the land, but there’s still no respect for the people living on it.

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Meanwhile, Ashley has his own grievance with history, arguing that Freetown is suffering for the sins of its forefathers. “If zoning was put in place a long time ago,” he says, “we wouldn’t have all these issues to deal with today.”

Teri Borseti is a freelance writer who lives in Franklin and is a regular contributor to The Boston Globe.