For developers and business people who are trying to get permits and licenses in Boston, an expression of support from the local neighborhood association can be invaluable — so much so that some developers are willing to pay for it, and some associations haven’t been shy about charging for it. It’s a sign that Boston has afforded neighborhood associations too much influence in run-of-the-mill permitting and zoning decisions.
When neighborhood associations exercise de facto veto power over private business projects, a system that’s supposed to take neighborhood sentiment into account is almost bound to degenerate into stickups and payoffs.
In an eye-opening story in last Sunday’s Globe, Mark Arsenault and Andrew Ryan reported on behind-the-scenes payments from developers to the supposed arbiters of community opinion. In some cases, cynical neighborhood associations appear to be shaking down developers; two civic groups in South Boston demanded $5,000 each for their support for a certain project and ended up settling for $2,500. Sometimes, the payments are designated for youth sports and other specific neighborhood projects, but other payments mentioned in the story went to two unregistered charities that use a certain South Boston civic leader’s home address.
In other cases, such as when an advertising firm offered a West End neighborhood group $10,000 a year for 20 years in exchange for its support before the Zoning Board of Appeal, cynical business people and developers appear to be paying off the groups to obtain a veneer of community backing for their plans.
Either way, community support becomes, as the Globe story puts it, “a crucial commodity that can sometimes be bought almost as easily as lumber or drywall.” These payments defeat the entire purpose of soliciting public opinion about a project.
The city should explicitly and emphatically discourage them. Any community benefits that a developer provides as a condition of getting a project approved should come as part of a public process, not a private deal with a civic group.
Civic associations can be great at organizing neighborhood cleanup days, raising funds for parks, and promoting a friendly spirit in a city often criticized for its chilly manner. They’re also a useful rallying point for residents in those rare moments when neighborhoods are genuinely under threat. The razing of Boston’s West End in the 1950s, to the disadvantage of its residents, prompted a more sensitive approach — and helps explain why neighborhood groups took on such an assertive role in Boston.
Neighborhood associations have become a convenient way for elected officials to connect with residents. City officials routinely urge developers to present their plans to these groups. But the groups vary widely in their abilities. Some are good at attracting new members; others have the same leaders year after year. Some are open to change; others reflexively oppose it. Some look at the big picture; others get hung up in internal personality conflicts and feud with rival civic groups that try to represent the same turf.
Meanwhile, there are now other ways — ranging from social media to surveys that gather hard data — to assess how residents of an area feel.
Fortunately, Boston neighborhoods seldom if ever confront anything close to an existential danger these days. A proposed new coffee shop on the corner just doesn’t require the same level of neighborhood intervention as the proposed bulldozing of block after block of homes. Unfortunately, Boston’s antiquated zoning and licensing rules are so restrictive, and leave so much up to official discretion, that neighborhood associations play an outsize role in decisions that don’t substantially affect them.
In the short term, the city can tell developers who are offering payments to neighborhood associations, or associations that are hitting up developers, to cut it out. In the long term, it’s better to involve community groups in a broader discussion of what a developer should be allowed to do by right, without jumping through extra hoops, rather than allowing them to micromanage lots of individual decisions.