In a break with Mayor Martin J. Walsh during a time when the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal is facing a backlog of hundreds of cases and has recently struggled to reach a quorum, the Boston City Council Wednesday rejected a trio of ZBA nominees.
At Wednesday’s virtual council meeting, City Councilor Michelle Wu, who as chairwoman of the council’s committee on planning, development, and transportation made the recommendation to reject the nominations, said “This is not about individuals.”
“It’s about the larger, structural issues,” she said.
In four separate votes on ZBA candidates, the council voted 7-5 to accept Wu’s recommendations that the council reject the nominees. One of the votes was moot since the nominee had already withdrawn from consideration.
The board, which is made up of seven full-time positions and seven alternate positions, governs small and midsize development projects across the city, and the council is charged with confirming board seats.
Wu has clashed in recent weeks with the Walsh administration over the ZBA candidates, which have sat in her committee for months. She has pressed for answers to questions pertaining to a corruption scandal that rocked the board in recent months, saying she wanted such answers before she made her recommendations regarding ZBA appointments to the full council.
The scandal in question 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.
Walsh’s inspectional services chief earlier this summer said in a letter that the stagnation regarding the board’s appointments “has dramatically reduced the number of available board members, resulting in a lack of quorum and diminished work capacity.” A full board would be seven members presiding over an appeal. The board needs five members to have a quorum.
In a Wednesday statement, Walsh said: “Boston’s 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.”
He continued: “These delays are harmful to our residents, and come on the heels of a public health crisis that stopped construction in Boston for several months, only further impeding our work to create neighborhoods that support all families. My administration has worked hard to bring important updates and smart reforms to the ZBA that will continue to remake it into a body that is accessible, transparent, and responsive to the needs of our city and our people.”
Walsh and Wu could face off in a 2021 mayoral contest, although neither has made public announcements regarding their intentions in that race. They have locked horns on other issues in recent weeks, including the Boston Resiliency Fund.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Wu also referenced a recent home-rule petition passed by the council that would implement changes to the board, including altering the board’s makeup, instituting term limits for board members, and requiring quarterly reports of board 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 petition has yet to receive the State House approval it needs to become a reality.
Wu said she wanted to align the nomination process with the home-rule petition. Specifically, she wants nominees who have expertise in the areas highlighted in that proposal and expressed a goal of approving new nominees at the Sept. 16 council meeting.
“Today I’m asking the council to think not about evaluating each individual nominee, but the structure of the ZBA and it’s connection to the underlying issues we see across the city, issues of inequity, of disparities that our development process has been exacerbating,” said Wu during Wednesday’s meeting, which was conducted via Zoom.