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Boston City Council backs ZBA changes, now State House must approve

The Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Almost a year after a bribery scandal rocked Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeal, authorities have moved to implement changes to that panel, which governs small and midsize development projects across the city.

The City Council this week approved sending a home rule petition to the State House that would increase the number of board members, alter the board’s makeup, implement term limits for board members, and require quarterly reports of board decisions regarding variances, which are exceptions to the city’s zoning code.

To take effect, both the state’s House and Senate would have to pass the home rule petition, which would then be sent to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.


Whether that will get done during this legislative session remains an open question.

If the Legislature does not take action during this session, the city would have to refile the measure during the next session.

Currently, the ZBA has seven full-time seats and seven alternate seats. The changes included in the home rule petition would see two more full-time seats and two more alternate seats added to the board.

Under the proposed additions to the board, one board member and one alternate would be environmental protection and climate change experts nominated by the Conservation Law Foundation, and one member and one alternate would be people with a background in urban planning nominated by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

Current rules call for board appointees to be nominated by various groups, including the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, the Boston Society of Architects, and multiple building trade groups. Such groups would continue to nominate members and alternates under the new proposal.

The mayor makes at-large selections for one member and one alternate. The mayor also chooses two full-time members and two alternates from neighborhood groups for the board. Under the new rules, that pool would now have to include one renter and one homeowner for both the full-time and alternate spots, provisions that were previously not required. According to the petition, “Renters, persons knowledgeable in civil rights and fair housing, experts in environmental protection and other stakeholders are not currently represented on the ZBA.”


The city council confirms nominees to the ZBA. That part of the process would remain unchanged under the new measure.

The proposal also requires the ZBA to produce quarterly reports on variances in the city, with the petition stating, “establishing a regular report on variances by neighborhood and zoning district would inform future zoning by clearly indicating where actual development practices and the zoning code differ substantially.”

Additionally, the measure would introduce term limits to the board. Members would be limited to two 3-year terms, although current members would have a one-term grace period.

Currently, there are no term limits for the ZBA.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Thursday urged the Legislature to “permit these changes to go forward as swiftly as possible.”

“I look forward to signing this Home Rule petition, continuing my pledge to bring important updates and reforms to the ZBA,” he said in a statement. “Along with the standards and timelines set in the Executive Order I issued earlier this year, these smart reforms will continue to remake the ZBA into a body that is accessible, transparent and responsive to the needs of our city and our people.”

In February, Walsh signed an executive order designed to strengthen conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure rules for the ZBA.


That move came six months after a veteran City Hall aide — then-Planning & Development Agency staffer John Lynch — took bribes from a developer to influence a project before the ZBA. Lynch pleaded guilty and was sentenced in January to 40 months in federal prison.

While no ZBA members were accused of taking bribes, Dorchester real estate agent Craig Galvin resigned from his post on the board amid reports he had worked with Lynch on private real estate projects. And William “Buddy” Christopher, a close Walsh ally who served as head of the city’s Inspectional Services Department at the time of the bribes, stepped down from his job at City Hall.

Complaints flooded in alleging improper dealings at the ZBA, which takes sometimes controversial votes on projects ranging from roof decks to apartment buildings. City Council members also called for changes in how the board operates.

At this week’s council meeting, City Councilor Lydia Edwards said the home rule petition pushes the city toward a more equitable and fair ZBA process.

“This is a huge win for us in terms of transparency,” she said.

Tim Logan and Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.