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Addition on state senator’s home proceeded ‘at risk’

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz’s Jamaica Plain home, the subject of a lawsuit.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz’s Jamaica Plain home, the subject of a lawsuit.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

The city of Boston refused to explain Friday how a state senator was allowed to expand her home last month without a structural building permit, though her architect said the construction proceeded “at risk” — on an accelerated schedule conditioned on later approvals.

The Boston Globe reported Friday that a neighbor is suing state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, for the renovations done to her Jamaica Plain home last month.

The suit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court by neighbor Brian Wells, alleges that the project did not have the appropriate permit to begin construction on such structural work and that its height exceeds the neighborhood limit of 35 feet or three stories. In addition to Chang-Diaz and her husband, Bryan Hirsch, Wells is suing the city of Boston, the Inspectional Services Department, and the Zoning Board of Appeal.

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In a brief interview Wednesday, Chang-Diaz acknowledged that the 2½-story house she bought last year is now 3½ stories. But she maintained in an e-mail on Friday that she had followed the proper approval process and had won the approval of most of her neighbors at the outset.

“The facts are not adding up here,” Chang-Diaz wrote in the e-mail. “This is also the first time my husband or I have ever been party to a lawsuit, so we’re going to err on the side of caution and not comment further on it.”

The project — an expansion of an attic into a full third story — won a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeal for its out-of-scale size, which increased the duplex’s capacity from 2,462 to 3,694 square feet.

But a long-form permit for the structural work has apparently not yet been issued; city officials could not provide the Globe a copy and they declined to answer questions about the process, citing the litigation.

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Construction can begin “at risk,” without a permit, if approved by either the building commissioner or the Inspectional Services commissioner and with the sign-off of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services. But applicants who proceed with construction face a significant risk: They could be forced to tear down renovations that fail to win the anticipated approvals or are challenged successfully in court.

Wells told the Globe this week that Chang-Diaz and her husband broached the subject of lowering the height after learning of Wells’s lawsuit, approaching him about a peaceable resolution. However, Chang-Diaz declined both Thursday and Friday to confirm or discuss that scenario.

Chang-Diaz and Hirsch bought the house in the Forest Hills section of Jamaica Plain last May, and several months later, they hosted an open house where they sought neighbors’ support to build out their attic and maximize the space. But some neighbors, in addition to Wells, said the construction turned out to be much grander and more substantive than the modest bumpout they’d expected.

One of the architects on the project, Sam Dennis, told the Globe Friday that his team followed the appropriate process, even presenting 3-D modeling to the neighborhood council.

“We continue to feel that we’ve done everything correctly, and are surprised about the problem that’s come up,” he said. However, he called it a “common problem” for a neighbor to conceptualize a project too late.

“This is a case where you’ve got an abutter that doesn’t recognize what’s being proposed, and when it gets built, they say, ‘Oh my God,’ ” he said. “And yet the whole process was followed and pursued correctly.”

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Asked about the height discrepancy, Dennis maintained, “The person who filed the complaint is in error. He’s wrong. Not everybody knows what they’re talking about and we do.”

He said that the couple began the construction project with an at risk permit because the process had “bogged down.”

“The city is trying hard to process the workload,” Dennis said. “It’s been a transition in the leadership and the department is being reorganized, and they’re trying to manage the workload to the best of their ability.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at stephanie.ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.