As a former City Hall aide awaits sentencing in federal court Friday for taking a bribe from a developer, city officials said they expect to soon propose reforms to the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal that could have major consequences for the building boom that has been steadily remaking many neighborhoods.
The reforms could range from the minor, such as new requirements for financial and ethical disclosures for zoning board members, to the far-reaching: a possible remake of the board itself, city officials said this week.
The bribery scandal has cast a cloud of suspicion over a city agency that is a key gatekeeper for thousands of mostly smaller developments. Too often, critics say, the ZBA grants developers variances over the objections of neighbors, to the point that parts of the city are being rebuilt without any clear adherence to zoning standards.
The bribery case "highlighted that the system is broken. I highlighted that there’s an issue here we need to fix,” said City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who has pushed for many of changes, and has met with a consultant hired by the Walsh administration to review the Zoning Board of Appeal. “We want to capture this moment for what it is, there’s momentum for reform.”
At the least, Edwards said, the city should immediate require the board to provide a better accounting of decisions to grant zoning variances and the city should appoint an independent attorney who would represent residents in certain neighborhoods undergoing high levels of development.
Long-term, Edwards said, the city should consider diversifying the board to include residents and renters, for example, while eliminating the requirement that certain building-related industries be represented on the board. For example, Edwards said the ZBA should not have a real estate agent sitting on the board because of the potential for conflicts of interest.
“Most people are looking at the ZBA, and are hungry for reform,” she said. “It’s a matter of efficiency, fairness, and transparency that we can get done, right now.”
John M. Lynch, 67, who worked in City Hall for more than two decades, faces four years in prison after pleading guilty to accepting a $50,000 bribe from a developer to influence a zoning board vote on his project. As part of their sentencing recommendation, prosecutors placed in the court record a photograph of Lynch receiving several bills.
Lynch acknowledged helping a developer secure a extension of his permit for a South Boston condo development by persuading a zoning board member in 2017 to back the move after it had previously been rejected. Federal prosecutors said the permit extension allowed the developer to sell the property at a profit of more than $500,000.
Prosecutors have not identified the developer by name, and would not say whether he faces charges. The Globe has previously reported he is Steven Turner, a former city employee who had a longstanding friendship with Lynch, and that the property at issue is on H Street. Turner, who has not been charged, has not responded to requests for comment.
Lynch stepped down just before the charges were announced in August. In October, William “Buddy” Christopher, who at the time was head of the city agency that reviews projects for the zoning board, the inspectional services department, resigned from another top-level City Hall position.
In addition, zoning board member Craig Galvin, a real estate agent in Dorchester, stepped down in September.
Federal authorities did not name the zoning board member whose vote Lynch had sought, saying only that he runs a real estate business and worked with Lynch on at least two property transactions. But Galvin worked as a consultant on a two-unit condo development that Lynch built in his Dorchester neighborhood that sold for nearly $1.5 million. Also, Walsh officials have acknowledged federal investigators have subpoenaed documents related to Galvin’s work at the ZBA.
Galvin declined to comment through a spokeswoman, saying only that his resignation will allow him to pursue his professional real estate work.
Federal authorities say that an investigation remains ongoing, but declined to comment further. Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement Thursday: “I have made clear that I expect every employee to conduct themselves with honesty, integrity, and respect for the public we serve.”
The mayor also noted that in September he asked the law firm Sullivan & Worcester to review the ZBA setup and recommend changes.
“Our work is centered on improving and addressing the board’s function, ethical standards, and transparency,” the mayor said, adding that he expects the report and recommendations to be completed within days and could “guide our critical next steps in this process.”
Walsh’s office said the mayor wants ZBA members as well as developers to disclose more information, such as whether board members have relationships with applicants, and requiring them to possibly abstain from voting on a project. The mayor also said he would work with city councilors to reform the zoning board structure, though that process may need state approval.
A separate review by Nixon Peabody attorney Brian Kelly, a former federal prosecutor, found that no current member of the zoning board had been implicated in the Lynch scandal. The report shed little new light on the episode itself, however, because Lynch, Galvin, Turner, and Christopher all refused to talk with him.
Much of the zoning board has already turned over since the scandal erupted last summer. Only three of the seven full members — chair Christine Araujo, Mark Fortune and Mark Erlich — remain from 2017, when the Lynch intervention occurred. Three full-member board seats are still vacant, with two replacements nominated by Walsh awaiting City Council confirmation. Alternate members have been filling in during meetings since then.
Despite all the tumult, the zoning board has been operating at full speed. Some critics say the board members ought to slow down.
Jack Vaughn, a longtime Mission Hill resident, said the board approved a 24-unit apartment building on Burney Street during a meeting he attended earlier this month, in spite of neighborhood concerns. The approval, he said, seemed “fore ordained.”
“Development has been happening at a stupendously rapid pace," Vaughn said. “Even the signs of corruption seem to give them no pause. It seems worthwhile to stop and take a few breaths before we rush forward.”
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