Even as the Walsh administration scrambled Saturday to respond to a City Hall staffer’s admission that he took bribes from a developer to influence a zoning decision, city councilors said the news was another sign that Boston’s system for approving new real estate development is in need of major reform.
The Friday afternoon announcement that John Lynch, a recently retired midlevel staffer at the Boston Planning & Development Agency, had agreed to plead guilty to bribery charges tied to a 2017 decision by the Zoning Board of Appeals caught City Hall by surprise on the eve of a holiday weekend. And a day later, key details remained unclear.
But the case — which prosecutors say helped a builder sell a development site at considerable profit — is the latest example of how Boston’s Byzantine permitting process is broken, to the benefit of well-connected insiders, Councilor Michelle Wu said.
“When our system is built on special approvals and exceptions, it leads to the possibility for things like this,” Wu said Saturday. “This is where we are, with a system built on who is able to have the greatest input to a small number of decision-makers.”
In this case Lynch, a longtime staffer at the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development who joined BPDA in 2016, admitted to taking $50,000 in bribes from an unnamed developer to help win a key vote on the ZBA in May 2017, extending permits to build a multi-family housing development on a site the developer owned.
What influence Lynch — who had no role in reviewing development projects at BPDA — may have had on any ZBA members was not immediately clear. Court documents say only that he “agreed to use his official position within the BPDA to advise and instruct” a ZBA member who he’d known for “several years” to vote in favor of the extension. Several projects received extensions at two ZBA meetings in May 2017, all with unanimous approval.
Several Walsh aides described Lynch as a relatively anonymous bureaucrat who made $134,000 a year managing city-owned buildings in the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Industrial Park; he quietly resigned in mid-August, giving just 24 hours’ notice. They had no idea the charges were coming and, even Saturday, said they didn’t know what development project the case involved, or who the developer might be. In a statement, Walsh said he was asking the US attorney’s office for more specific details so he could “determine if action needs to be taken as a result.”
Since coming into office, Walsh’s focus has been to level the playing field in the zoning process in Boston, making it transparent and eliminating any one person’s ability to get special treatment, spokeswoman Laura Oggeri said. “The type of behavior that’s being investigated will not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form.”
The case puts a spotlight on the ZBA, a seven-member board of mayoral appointees who meet biweekly to rule on relatively modest projects, everything from roof decks to small apartment buildings. Unlike the oft-controversial BPDA, the board has a fairly low profile, its meetings the domain of local builders and zoning lawyers. But in a city with a decades-old zoning code, where nearly any construction project needs at least one variance, it plays a crucial role in neighborhood-level development.
The prospect of influence-peddling there highlights the need for greater oversight, said City Councilor Lydia Edwards.
“Planning, zoning, and development review are critical city functions that impact the lives of residents across the city,” her office said in a statement Saturday. “Cases like these emphasize the need for transparent public oversight and clear standards for approval in each step of the process.”
This summer, Wu and Edwards held up City Council confirmation of several ZBA members, citing concerns about zoning for marijuana dispensaries and potential conflicts of interest. ZBA chair Christine Araujo accused the councilors of “posturing” and potentially slowing development in the city.
The council finally voted to approve those nominations at its last meeting in August, barely a week before news of Lynch’s guilty plea broke.