A new front has opened up in the ongoing jockeying between might-be 2021 mayoral opponents Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Councilor Michelle Wu: Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeal.
The board, which governs small and midsize development projects across the city, has a handful of vacancies, but some Walsh appointments have stalled for months in a committee that Wu oversees. Facing a backlog of 600 projects in large part because of the COVID-19 crisis, which prompted the business of the ZBA to be suspended, the board has struggled at times in recent weeks to reach the requisite quorum it needs to approve projects, according to authorities.
In a recent letter responding to questions from Wu about a corruption scandal that rocked the ZBA last year, one Walsh administration official lamented the lack of movement on ZBA appointments.
“The refusal to act on appointments and reappointments to the ZBA has dramatically reduced the number of available board members, resulting in a lack of quorum and diminished work capacity,” said Dion Irish, the city’s commissioner of inspectional services.
For her part, Wu has said she wants answers to questions about the scandal before she makes recommendations regarding the appointments to the full council, which per state law is charged with confirming ZBA seats.
“To date, basic questions about the corruption charge remain unanswered, casting a cloud over the integrity of the board moving forward,” said Wu in a mid-July letter to the mayor. Wu has called a meeting of her committee on planning, development, and transportation for this Thursday, when the “current situation” with the ZBA is slated to be discussed.
During a phone interview this week, Wu reiterated her stance, saying, “We’ve had several rounds of questions and insufficient answers.”
Walsh, meanwhile, said in a recent statement that residents “rely on the ZBA for zoning relief on basic projects such as the addition to a home or enclosure of an open porch, to large-scale projects needed in our communities such as the creation of an affordable housing development.”
“It is imperative that these projects have a clear, swift and unobstructed pathway to move forward to meet the needs that exist in our neighborhood,” he said.
The scandal Wu has questions about involved a veteran City Hall aide — then-Planning & Development Agency staffer John Lynch — taking 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.
Subsequently, complaints flooded in alleging improper dealings at the ZBA, which takes sometimes controversial votes on projects ranging from roof decks to apartment buildings. Earlier this year, Walsh signed an executive order designed to strengthen conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure rules for the ZBA. Late last month, the City Council moved to implement changes to that panel, sending the reforms to the State House for approval.
In her mid-July letter, Wu wanted to know how much the city paid for reviews of the incident at the heart of the scandal, what the process is for a matter to end up on a ZBA agenda, and whether specific individuals were involved in scheduling the project involved in the scandal on ZBA agendas, among other questions.
In her letter, Wu pointed out that the board rejected a request to extend a previously granted variance for the South Boston condominium project at the heart of the matter in May 2017 because the petitioner did not show up to the meeting and the variance had in fact expired months earlier and was therefore not eligible for a routine extension.
Standard project deferrals usually take at least a month and projects rejected in the way this one was must wait a year before they are considered, said Wu, but this project was back on the board’s agenda for the next meeting in May 2017. It passed with very little discussion, she said.
“The central question of how the project was scheduled for consideration, with an unprecedented rapid turnaround and in violation of zoning code and standard policies, has not been documented or answered by the two reviews you commissioned,” said Wu.
Of the seven sitting full-time spots on the board, there are currently three vacancies, according to Walsh’s office. There are four more vacancies in the seven alternative slots, his office said. Walsh submitted two appointments to fill full-time vacancies at the end of January. Apart from the full-time spots, there are technically four vacancies for the ZBA’s alternate spots and a pair of nominees being considered by Wu’s committee. Those two nominees date back to late January and last September. One of the nominees, Kerry Walsh Logue, is a reappointment and she continues to serve on the ZBA under a “hold-over status,” according to Wu.
A full board would be seven members presiding over an appeal. The board needs five members to have a quorum.
The majority of projects that go before the ZBA are relatively small, homeowner projects. Someone wants to add new dormers or build a deck, for instance.
In his letter to Wu’s office in late July, Irish referenced the stagnation of board appointments.
“At the most recent meeting of the ZBA, approximately half of all the scheduled matters needed to be deferred due to a lack of quorum,” he said. “The people whose matters were deferred, it is important to note, are not recent appellants but have been waiting for hearings since March when health considerations necessitated the shutdown.”
At a council meeting in late July, Wu said Irish’s letter failed to address specific questions regarding the board and did not do enough to restore trust.
Prior to the coronavirus emergency, the ZBA’s caseload averaged about 68 projects a week, according to Walsh’s office.
At a July 28 meeting there were five seated members of the ZBA in attendance, the required quorum.
One project before the board called for replacing 64 existing housing units for low-income seniors and persons with disabilities at the J.J. Carroll Apartments in Brighton. The project would also build an additional 80 units for the same population. After the recusal of a ZBA member from the matter, only four members were left, meaning there were not enough for a quorum. The matter was deferred to the fall, when the board hopes to have a quorum.
At the same meeting, another project was deferred because of a recusal; this one called for the demolition of a restaurant in Charlestown and the construction of a three-unit residential building.
In recent weeks, Wu, who is thought to be seriously considering a mayoral run in next year’s election, has criticized the Walsh administration over the Boston Resiliency Fund as well as the city’s Racial Equity Fund. Her criticism of the Resiliency Fund drew an unusually sharp rebuke from Walsh.
Wu has yet to make a public announcement regarding next year’s mayoral contest and Walsh has yet to publicly announce whether he intends to seek reelection.
Milton J. Valencia and Tim Logan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.