Every other Tuesday morning, the usual players file into a City Hall hearing room named for the late City Councilor Albert L. “Dapper” O’Neil to plead their cases before the Zoning Board of Appeal . Somewhere that old pol is smiling.
Because long before the board became ground zero for a federal bribery case, its way of doing business — under a unique and antiquated zoning code — has succeeded in politicizing virtually every construction project under their purview.
And make no mistake, that’s exactly the way the elected officials who weigh in most often before this largely obscure board like it.
Late last week, John Lynch, a longtime city employee now resigned from the Boston Planning and Development Agency, was charged with accepting a $50,000 bribe from a Boston real estate developer. Back in 2017, the developer was looking for an extension of a zoning permit. Lynch, according to court documents, knew a member of the board “several years on a personal and professional basis” and used his position “to instruct and advise the Zoning Board member to vote in favor of a permit extension.”
It was a small ZBA matter but one that was eventually worth about a half-million dollars to the developer, who soon after sold the South Boston property to another developer.
Court papers filed by the US attorney’s office indicate Lynch will plead guilty to accepting the bribe and failing to pay taxes on it. The developer has not been charged and the board member in question not identified, which means the case raises far more questions than it answers.
Those familiar with the board’s operations also note that hundreds of such extensions are granted every year without controversy. Why would this one be any different?
In fact, the board approves thousands of variances on small and medium construction projects annually. Most of them deal with the wide array of minutiae that come with building in the city — setbacks, density limits, parking spaces, a three-family that someone wants to convert to a four-family. Dozens of such variances are voted on at each board meeting.
Their workload is enormous. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to build anything in the city without appearing before the board, because Boston is still operating under a 1956 law (the zoning code itself dates to 1964) that makes it unique among Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns. Every other community operates under Chapter 40A.
That statewide law is not without its own flaws. This week, Governor Charlie Baker will make yet another push for his bill to amend the law to make it easier to build more housing in the suburbs. But even as it stands now, the law is far less cumbersome, more building uses are automatically permitted under the zoning code (“as a matter of right” building), and boards of appeals are smaller (three to five members), with no designations for special interests.
In Boston, however, the seven-member Zoning Board of Appeal is appointed by the mayor, but some of the slots are designated for representatives of the building trades, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, the Boston Society of Architects, contractors, and at least one member of a community group.
The meetings follow a predictable script. Mark Erlich, former head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, has been known to ask who the contractor is on a project. Coming from him, it’s not a casual inquiry. Then, according to the minutes of countless board meetings, comes the ubiquitous phrase: “The Board then requested testimony from neighbors and elected officials.” Support from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services is a good start. Support from the Carpenter’s Union even better. Throw in a city councilor or two — and several are regulars — and the variance is pretty much a done deal.
But woe to the zoning supplicant whose project doesn’t meet with the approval of the local councilor — or even worse, the state legislator.
As City Councilor Michelle Wu told the Globe, “When our system is built on special approvals and exceptions, it leads to the possibility for things like this [the Lynch case].” Wu, who has not been among those ZBA “regulars,” called it “a system built on who is able to have the greatest input to a small number of decision-makers.”
It is, in short, one that is ripe for corruption. But it will take more than one guilty plea to bring down a system whose players — developers and politicians alike — like it just the way it is. It works for them, just not for the greater good.