From the outset, the proposal for a six-unit condo development on a small lot on Bailey Street in Dorchester ran into neighborhood opposition, leading to a swift rejection from the Zoning Board of Appeal in late 2015.
So the developers scaled back, opting to renovate instead of demolish the house on the site, and build a two-unit town home behind it. Neighbors thought it was still too much for the lot, but the developers had their consultant, Craig Galvin, a well-connected local real estate broker, lobby residents.
Less than three years later, in June 2018, the project was back before the zoning board. By then, Galvin had been appointed to the board by Mayor Martin J. Walsh. This time, the project was unanimously approved, despite continued neighborhood opposition. Galvin recused himself from the vote; a video of the meeting shows him in the back of the room as an abutter pleaded to the board, in vain.
“It didn’t pass any smell test, in my opinion,” the abutter, Stephen Weymouth, said in an interview. “It is over, but it still left a dirty, despicable taste in my mouth.”
When the units hit the market, Galvin’s firm, Galvin Group, was the listing agent; the house sold in December for $750,000, according to deed records, and the two condos are each listed at $759,000.
There is no evidence Galvin did anything to influence the board’s deliberations, and one of the developers, Chris Barbour, said in an interview that Galvin, whom he called a childhood friend from Dorchester, is not why the project won approval from the zoning board.
But the Bailey Street project illustrates the incestuous mechanics of a permitting system that is now enmeshed in an influence-peddling scandal, and highlights how the zoning board seems almost destined for potential conflicts of interest by the very way it is organized.
The composition of the Boston panel — under state law more than half of the board’s seats are held by people from the real estate and building industries — is unusual among US cities. And their twin allegiances come in conflict enough that recusals by board members are a regular occurrence.
The board is under investigation by federal prosecutors, who have secured a guilty plea from a City Hall employee for accepting a bribe to influence a zoning vote on a project. A top aide to the mayor who ran the agency that reviewed permits has taken an unpaid leave, and the Walsh administration has launched an internal review of the board’s procedures.
And Galvin, who sold a Dorchester duplex built by the same city employee who pleaded guilty, resigned from the zoning board in early September, saying that he wanted to focus on his real estate business.
Along with helping buyers and sellers navigate the housing market, Galvin Group advertises its services to developers as a consultant, promising on its website “key insights and support in meetings with the community, abutters, Zoning Board of Appeals, the BRA and other stakeholders.”
That site lists 25 projects Galvin Group worked on, mostly in Dorchester and nearby neighborhoods. Of those, at least eight went before the Zoning Board of Appeal in the three-plus years Galvin served.
The zoning board’s records don’t always show whether a member voted or stepped aside. Some projects aren’t included in the minutes, and written records sometimes contradict video recordings of the meetings. On four of those eight projects Galvin lists, written minutes indicate he recused himself from the board’s vote. Bailey Street was a fifth, where video indicates he stepped away from the dais.
In another instance, the board’s records indicate that in June 2017 Galvin made the motion to approve rezoning the site of a single-family house and empty lot in Roslindale for a pair of three-family condo buildings. It was approved, with just one member voting no, board records indicate.
When those condos were built and put on the market beginning in June, 2018, Galvin Group served as the listing agent. They sold over the past year for more than $3.2 million combined.
For the Roslindale site and other properties, it was not clear when Galvin’s firm got involved in the projects.
In another project before the zoning board in March 2018, Galvin cast the only vote against rezoning an old car lot on Dorchester Avenue near Ashmont for a small affordable housing development. At the hearing, the developer of an adjacent property at 8 Banton St. testified against the project, saying it was too big, with too little parking. The board nonetheless approved it, 6-1, with Galvin the lone no vote, according to minutes of the meeting.
Galvin Group served as a marketing consultant for the neighboring project on Banton Street “through all stages of development,” according to his website. The Banton Street project broke ground in June 2017 and the rental units opened in January, 2019. The affordable housing project has yet to break ground.
State law bars Boston zoning board members from hearing or voting on projects for which they either “received compensation” or held an ownership interest within the prior two years.
And state ethics laws lay out other prohibitions, such as voting on projects that could directly benefit a friend or family member, or using one’s position “to secure for themselves or others unwarranted privileges of substantial value that are not properly available to similarly situated individuals.”
All city officials, include zoning board members, undergo ethics training. “Participating as a municipal employee in a matter in which you, your immediate family, your business organization, or your future employer has a financial interest is prohibited,” the Boston training documents state.
Although the state ethics commission provides guidance on potential conflicts, such as when board members should disclose them or consult with a city lawyer, the decision to do so is up to the government official. Often one easy way that zoning board members avoid a conflict is to recuse themselves.
Through a spokeswoman, Galvin declined to discuss specific cases. He did note, though, that zoning board members typically see some 125 cases a month, and spend hours of their free time preparing “to fully understand the nature and value of each case.” The spokeswoman said the board’s process requires “a fully transparent vote on the merits of the case presented.”
The potential for board conflicts is bound to be a subject of the independent review Walsh commissioned after longtime city employee John Lynch admitted in federal court to taking a $50,000 bribe to help a developer secure a favorable vote from the board in 2017.
While prosecutors have released few details, people with knowledge of the case have told the Globe it involved a condo proposal on H Street in South Boston that in May 2017 needed an extension of expired zoning changes. When the developer, Steven M. Turner, failed to show for the hearing, the board voted down his request, effectively killing the project. Galvin — whose firm worked as a consultant and broker for a separate project that Lynch was building in Dorchester — cast the lone vote against killing the Southie development.
Then, two weeks later, the extension for the H Street project resurfaced on the board’s agenda and was unanimously approved. Turner later sold the permitted site for $3.2 million, twice what he’d paid to buy it in 2014, and prosecutors say Lynch’s intervention to save the denser zoning boosted its value by at least a half-million dollars.
On Sept. 6, Walsh launched a full review of the incident and of the zoning board, and announced that William “Buddy” Christopher — a close aide who ran the city’s Inspectional Services Department at the time — was taking an unpaid leave of absence. Two days later, Galvin resigned from the board.
Citing the ongoing city review, Galvin again declined to discuss specifics.
“Due to the broad role of a zoning board member, and the undefined nature as it relates to his full-time professional career as a real estate agent and broker, Mr. Galvin felt it best to tender his resignation,” his spokeswoman said.
Walsh and Galvin have long moved in the same political circles in Dorchester. Galvin — a prominent real estate agent who once wore the ceremonial crown as “mayor” of the sprawling neighborhood — ran for City Council in 2011 and volunteered for Walsh’s mayoral campaigns, hosting a fund-raiser for Walsh at the Venezia in Port Norfolk in 2015.
A spokeswoman last week said the mayor’s review would include an examination of the zoning board’s process, as well as the composition of its members.
“Mayor Walsh . . . has made clear that with those findings he will eliminate even the opportunity to posture that there is an ‘insider treatment’ lane,” spokeswoman Samantha Ormsby said.
The potential for conflicts, or even the appearance of one, among municipal zoning board and planning board members is not unusual, especially in Boston.
One longstanding zoning member, Bruce Bickerstaff, resigned in September hours after Walsh issued an executive order barring city employees from participating in marijuana companies that seek City Hall approval. Bickerstaff co-owns Silver Therapeutics, which is seeking city permits for a pot shop in Roslindale.
The administration also did not reappoint zoning board member Marie St. Fleur, a former state representative who is now chief operating officer of a marijuana company seeking permission to open a retail outlet in Allston.
Patricia Salkin, a provost and law professor at Touro College in New York who has lectured nationally on the ethics of land-use policies, said conflicts of interest are bound to arise on local boards that draw members from the surrounding community.
But the potential for a conflict increases, Salkin said, if a member actively works in industries overseen by the board. She said the composition of the Boston board, on which four of the seven seats are set aside for real estate agents, architects, construction contractors, and members of local building trades unions, is not common nationwide.
“Certain professions do come with the potential for conflict, especially if [board members] are working in that field and in the city,” Salkin said. She said cities can establish proper guidelines and ethical training to help officials properly respond to these occurrences, such as whether to recuse from a vote.
“It’s a culture, creating a culture of public integrity in government,” Salkin said, adding, “the best thing we can do is try to appoint honest people, who understand the responsibility, who take it seriously.”
On the day of the first zoning board vote for the H Street extension in May, 2017, board member Anthony Pisani recused himself, later telling the Globe he had done work for a builder who was considering buying the site.
“It would have been inappropriate,” said Pisani, who recently retired after 32 years on the board. “So I recused.”
The potential for conflicts can make it hard to recruit real estate agents to serve on the zoning board, said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.
Galvin was one of just four agents to raise a hand for the real estate seat in 2015, Vasil recalled. The job is unpaid, and consumes at least one day every two weeks. For many, he said, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
“It’s not easy. People are very concerned,” Vasil said. “They don’t want to wind up in a conflict of interest.”
On Monday, City Councilor Lydia Edwards plans to file a bill to remake the zoning board entirely, barring people who work directly in real estate and development and instead reserving seats for renters, urban planners, and fair housing and environmental experts.
She won’t have to reach too far back for examples to underline her point.
The zoning board met Sept. 17 without Galvin and Bickerstaff, but with two new members who had previously been nominated by Walsh: Joseph Ruggiero Jr., a neighborhood activist from East Boston, and Nadine Fallon, a real estate agent from Dorchester.
Less than an hour into the meeting, the board reviewed a plan for a building on Hancock Street, near Fallon’s office on Dorchester Avenue. As soon as the proponents took their place before the board, Fallon recused herself — she didn’t specify why — and left the room.