Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, chairwoman of a committee that screens nominees to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal, is recommending that the council reject a trio of active nominees to that panel, while Mayor Martin J. Walsh said further inaction regarding board appointments could harm development in the city.
The zoning board has become the newest battleground in jockeying between Wu and Walsh, and the panel has at times struggled to reach a requisite quorum in recent weeks while staring down a backlog of hundreds of cases caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The board governs small and midsize development projects across the city, and the council is charged with confirming board seats.
In a letter to council members that will be considered at Wednesday’s meeting, Wu recommends the body reject four zoning board appointments, one of which is moot because the nominee has withdrawn from consideration. The appointments have sat in Wu’s committee on planning, development, and transportation for months, with the councilor saying she wanted answers to questions pertaining to a scandal that rocked the board last year before reporting out her recommendations regarding the nominees.
In her letter to the council, Wu advocated for a new slate of nominees.
It references a recent home-rule petition passed by the council that would implement changes to the board, including altering it’s makeup, instituting term limits for board members, and requiring quarterly reports of decisions regarding variances, which are exceptions to the city’s zoning code. The proposal would also add seats to the panel for nominees who have expertise in climate change and environmental protection and urban planning.
“The types of expertise introduced in the home-rule petition are not immediately evident in the resumes of confirmed and nominated members and alternates,” Wu said in the letter. “The consensus of the councilors present at the committee meeting was that the council would request new nominees that reflect these areas of expertise, then move swiftly through the confirmation process.”
The petition has yet to meet with the required State House approval it needs to become a reality.
Wu expressed a goal of approving new nominees at a Sept. 16 council meeting. Another board nominee who has been considered by Wu’s committee, Kerry Walsh Logue, is a reappointment and has continued to serve on the board under a “hold-over status,” Wu has said. Wu is recommending that reappointment remain in committee for consideration with the new nominees.
Walsh, at an afternoon news conference outside City Hall, said the zoning board candidates need to be voted on adding that inaction from councilors could “cause a lot of harm in our city.” Failure of the board to have a quorum could “stop development in the city in its tracks.”
“We have hundreds and hundreds of applications in front of the Zoning Board of Appeal, people’s homes, people’s livelihood, their investments,” said Walsh.
The mayor said that “This is, for a couple councilors, about politics right now. This isn’t about moving our process forward.”
Wu is thought to be seriously considering a mayoral run next year, but has yet to publicly reveal her plans. Likewise, Walsh has yet to announce whether he intends to seek re-election.
In a separate matter, Wu has also filed an order for a hearing to discuss a “Boston Green New Deal” that is on Wednesday’s council agenda. Earlier this week, Wu released a plan that her office described as offering “a framework for using the full reach of municipal authority to mitigate the threat of climate change.” The initiative includes proposals calling for the acceleration of de-carbonization, easing the upfront costs of clean energy infrastructure, the creation of an urban climate corps, and divestment from “harmful” industries.
In other business, the council at Wednesday’s meeting will consider holding a hearing to discuss strategies for tackling issues related to homeless encampments in and around Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, an area commonly referred to as “Mass and Cass,” where the homeless and people struggling with opioid addiction, have traditionally gathered.
“The rise of homeless encampments in recent months along the Melnea Cass and Mass Ave. corridor will only compound the trauma of surrounding communities, including poor communities of color, who are already vulnerable,” read the hearing order from council President Kim Janey and Councilor Ricardo Arroyo.
The order continued, “There is an urgent need for action to reevaluate what’s working and identify opportunities for improvement in the City’s response to the opioid crisis.”