It is as ordinary a piece of land as there is in this booming city — 4,100 nondescript square feet at 27-29 H Street, a couple of blocks from East Broadway in South Boston. But now it’s the focal point of a federal investigation that has again reached into City Hall and shows signs of spreading beyond the one official who has already been charged.
The property had been owned by Steven Turner, an established but little-known developer, when it received an extension of some zoning permits in 2017, according to city records.
While Turner was not named in court records Friday, two people familiar with the case say it was he who paid then-Boston Planning & Development Agency staffer John Lynch $50,000 to encourage a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals to vote in favor of Turner’s plan to build a condo building at 27-29 H Street.
Turner did not respond to e-mails from a Globe reporter seeking comment, his voicemail box was full and not accepting messages, and no one answered the door at his Beacon Hill condo on Sunday afternoon. He is not currently facing criminal charges and it is not known if he has a criminal attorney.
A small-scale builder who got his start working in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development — where Lynch had long worked before joining the Planning and Development Agency in 2016 — Turner had already obtained zoning variances for the property on H Street, but they expired in January 2017. In May 2017, he asked the zoning board for an extension, saying the project had been delayed by a search for an oil tank on the site and a change from 12 units to 11, which necessitated further city review.
“He’d hate to lose a project over a minor oversight,” Turner’s zoning lawyer, George Morancy, told the board at the May 23, 2017, meeting, according to a video of the meeting on the city’s website.
Such extensions are fairly routine, city zoning experts say, and the seven-member board that day voted unanimously, with little conversation, to extend Turner’s permit for a year. In January 2018, Turner’s Green Brick Development LLC sold the site to another development firm for $3.2 million, twice what he had paid to buy it nearly four years prior, according to deeds filed in Suffolk County. That developer is now building the project.
That apparently routine vote is at the center of a public corruption case that rocked City Hall Friday, hinting at the possibility of influence-peddling within the Zoning Board of Appeals, a group of mayoral appointees who rule on dozens of small and mid-sized development projects across the city each month. While the board’s public votes are often unanimous, many of its decisions are first hashed out through backroom negotiations among developers, neighborhood groups, and city officials.
It’s not clear what sort of influence Lynch — whose BPDA job managing city-owned real estate did not involve reviewing development projects — may have had on any zoning board members; court documents said only that he had known one for “several years.” It’s also not yet clear which zoning member was involved.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he has reached out to the US Attorney’s Office seeking more information to help “determine if action needs to be taken as a result.”
“The type of behavior that’s being investigated will not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form,” Walsh said in a statement Saturday.
The case against Lynch — who has agreed to plead guilty and serve 46 to 57 months in prison — may have wide implications.
It is part of a broader look by federal prosecutors into Boston’s rapid development boom and how much of it is dominated by a relatively small handful of developers, architects, attorneys, brokers, and other players, according to one person with knowledge of the investigation. A spokeswoman for US Attorney Andrew Lelling would only say the matter remains under investigation.
City councilors have also said it highlights the opaque nature of so many development decisions in Boston and the need for greater transparency in the city’s famously complex permitting process.
Still, veterans of the city’s development scene said they were surprised that such a small matter as extending a permit would rise to the level of bribery. Larry DiCara, a former Boston city councilor and longtime zoning lawyer, said he has sought such extensions on behalf of clients countless times, and there is rarely, if ever, an issue.
“I’ve never even had more than a passing question from the board about why you would be extended,” DiCara said. “This is about as routine as it gets.”
Indeed Turner’s zoning lawyer, Morancy, said he, too, viewed the matter as pretty simple, describing it in an e-mail as a “common extension” of the sort he has handled “dozens of times.”
“The notion of bribery occurring, if true, strikes me as being as preposterous as it is appalling,” wrote Morancy, who described Turner as a “sporadic client” whom he didn’t recall speaking with since 2017. “What should be needless to say is I had no knowledge of any of this.”