By John Lynds
In the wake of the scandal that has rocked the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals in recent months, District 1 City Councilor Lydia Edwards is calling for an overhaul of the city’s zoning board.
The John Lynch bribery scandal has trickled down to the ZBA itself and now Mayor Martin Walsh is calling for an investigation into the board.
Lynch, the city’s Director of Real Estate, plead guilty in federal court to accepting $50,000 from a developer to sway members of the ZBA on a vote.
Since his plea, ZBA Board Member Craig Galvin has resigned and former ISD Commissioner Buddy Christopher, who has been serving as an advisor to Walsh, also recently left City Hall. Reports then surfaced that Galvin’s real estate company allegedly may have benefited from votes he took approving projects that he and his wife later sold.
Last week Edwards filed legislation to modernize and reform the ZBA.
According to Edwards, the proposed legislation would change the membership, mandate, electronic notice and records policy, staffing and standards of review for the ZBA, and require quarterly reports on the ZBA’s activities. It would also improve the general public’s ability to appeal zoning by enabling electronic appeals and establishing a community counsel to provide neutral advice to residents. Finally, it would require new financial disclosures from appellants seeking zoning relief and require appellants seeking variances on occupied buildings to discuss plans to prevent displacement.
Edwards called for an overhaul of the ZBA that would include membership requirements, staffing improvements, better notices and records, expanded public access, the creation of a community counsel, and regular reporting, as well as anti displacement plans, enhanced standards and addition conflict-of-interest protections.
“These changes protect against conflicts of interest, improve standards of review, ensure critical perspectives of tenants and environmental protection are represented, and modernize the Zoning Board of Appeal by providing 21st-century transparency for all residents,” said Edwards. “This overhaul is a team effort, and I appreciate that Mayor Walsh is already calling for administrative changes. I am looking forward to working with Sullivan and Worcester to ensure we have a comprehensive conversation on ZBA reform. However, many changes will require a legislative revision of the board and this Home Rule Petition is starting that necessary conversation.”
Under Edward’s plan, real estate interests would be removed from the board and no named organizations or interests would have a permanent seat. Members and alternate members (seven each) of the ZBA would represent perspectives from affordable housing, civil rights and fair housing, environmental protection and climate change, urban planning, homeowners, renters, and expertise in zoning and the general laws.
Staff for the ZBA would be prohibited from engaging in other permitting, planning, development or real estate functions, and prohibited from engaging in private business in these areas.
Records would be available electronically and in person at City Hall and 1010 Massachusetts Ave. no later than seven days following a hearing. Notices of hearings would be posted and delivered electronically 20 days in advance. Contact information for the board would be posted electronically.
Appeals could be filed electronically, in person at city hall or at 1010 Massachusetts Avenue.
A new legal support office to provide neutral advice and guidance explaining standards, votes, procedures, the appeal process and other matters relevant to the board of appeal.
The ZBA would file a quarterly report on the number and type of conditional use permit or variance granted, by neighborhood and zoning district.
The ZBA would require appel lants to submit statements of financial interest.
The ZBA would require appellants seeking a variance for occupied or recently-occupied structures to submit plans to mitigate displacement and to provide information about any recent evictions.
The ZBA would be newly required to consider whether a variance would impact the city’s goals for income-restricted housing, furthering fair housing, preventing displacement and addressing climate change, as well as consistency with neighborhood planning.
People engaged in the construction, development, purchase or sale of real estate would be ineligible for membership on the ZBA. The City of Boston would be able to require as a condition of appointment that members will not be engaged in the business of real estate construction, development, purchase or sale within the city for up to five years after their term of service concludes. The ZBA would be required to publish additional regulations to prevent conflict of interest.
Last month Walsh announced his administration had hired the former head of the public corruption unit inside the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Brian Kelly, to conduct an independent review of the Lynch scandal.
Walsh also called for a comprehensive review of the ZBA and related processes, in order to ensure that best practices, including strong internal protocols and policies, are in place to best serve applicants in a way that is transparent and accountable to the public.
Walsh has asked Sullivan & Worcester LLP to conduct this comprehensive review beginning with the rules and regulations in place that dictate how the ZBA conducts business on behalf of the residents of Boston, and those with matters before the board.
“Since taking office, my Administration has worked to level the playing field in the development process in Boston, emphasizing transparency and ensuring broader access and input from the community,” said Walsh last month. “I recognize that there is always more work to be done to make the business of city government more accessible and transparent to everyone. I am hopeful that we will learn from the findings of this review how else we can better serve our constituencies and implement best practices used in the field.”