Residents dissatisfied with current ZBA; City Council working on home rule petition

Following Mayor Walsh’s Executive Order calling for more transparency and ethical standards for the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA), the City Council Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on Jan. 25 to discuss a Home Rule Petition regarding the ZBA.

City Councilor Lydia Edwards spearheaded the hearing as well as the proposed Home Rule Petition, which she said would change the structure of the ZBA. The Home Rule Petition would need to pass both the City Council and at the State House in order to take effect.

The petition as proposed now requires that ZBA members have expertise in areas of affordable housing, civil rights, environmental protection and climate change, urban planning, and design of neighborhoods. Additionally, it would require that both homeowners and renters be on the board and have expertise in zoning and general laws.

“The proposal also includes a provision that prevents members of the ZBA from engaging in the business of real estate construction, development, or purchase or sale within the city while they are members of the Zoning Board, Edwards said. “The proposal also includes a provision that gives the City of Boston discretionary authority to acquire as a condition of appointment that ZBA members will not be engaged in the business of real estate construction, development, purchase or sale within the City for up to five years after their term of service concludes or set restrictions on activities following a member’s term of service.”

Additionally, the proposal requires that the ZBA public rules that would discourage “real or apparent” conflicts of interest during or after a ZBA member’s term of service, and also requires that the ZBA’s standards of review be put into the Boston Zoning Code.  Also, the proposal requires that more information be available and easily accessible to the public, including contact information for the board members, a subscription list for notice and advertisement of board hearings, and a record of board proceedings, as well as establishes an Office of Community Council “to assure that people are fully informed and know their rights on the day of the hearings,” Edwards said.

Lastly, the proposal establishes term limits board members and requires quarterly reports of variances. Edwards said that the City Council has received support from community organizations across the city, as well as letters of concern from architects who would like to see the requirement of an architect on the board remain.

Public testimony ranged from wanting to make sure technical expertise positions remained on the board to fully supporting the Home Rule Petition and recognizing the need for an overhaul of the ZBA.

Brian Blaesser, a partner at Dinsmore & Shohl, said that in order to have findings of fact, which is a large part of what the ZBA is based on, technical expertise is necessary. He said that the Home Rule Petition seems to replace “those technical expertise positions with positions of policy,” and if the board loses the technical expertise and switches to a focus on policy, it will be unable to apply those technical standards.

Fatima Ali-Salaam of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council said she supports the petition offered by the City Council, but agrees that it “should not exclude those with technical expertise,” she said. “We agree with Councilor Edwards; it’s a good start.”

Elliott Laffer of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) said that he has spent a number of hours before the ZBA, and agrees that there should be no conflicts of interest within the board.

However, “the most fundamental problem with the ZBA is not with the board, but how many cases are in front of the board,” he said. “We are zoning by exception. If the zoning code was properly written, we wouldn’t spend as much time smoothing things out.” 

He said that most cases that come before the ZBA are ones asking for variances, and “maybe only two get turned down” out of 40 or 50 cases. “We’re doing something wrong in the way we act,” he said, adding that he feels the ZBA has a “strong bias” toward approval from the board—many people go in expecting an approval right off the bat.

Raymond Hurteau, a smaller independent developer in the Boston area, said that he does not agree with the zoning code as it is today, and would like to see some of the restrictions lifted.

“We do live in the City of Boston, and it’s a city and whether we like it or not, if we aren’t thinking towards the future in terms of density and not thinking of the impacts of the added density, we’re going to continue to have a supply shortage,” he said. He said that if some supply constraints were removed, more units could be developed and prices would fall.

Thomas Schiavoni, a North End resident, expressed frustrations with the ZBA process and hearings themselves. He said that people have taken time off of work, canceled medical appointments, and scrambled to find babysitters so they can come to a ZBA hearing for a project they’re concerned about, only to find out at the hearing that the project is deferred. Developers are “more than likely” to be granted requested deferrals, he said, which leads to frustration in the public.

Additionally, he said that people out in the hallway outside the hearing room can often be loud and disruptive during hearings, making it difficult to hear the current case. “When we don’t understand the process, it ends as disrespect for the process,” he said, adding that people lose faith in the ZBA system when the process is confusing or misleading.   

Luanne O’Connor, a resident from South Boston, said that the City Point Neighborhood Association is also frustrated and upset with the zoning process. “I do think that we need transparency, accountability,” she said. “We don’t really have a lot of information insofar as statistics.” She said that residents are being displaced and the city needs to look into more responsible development.

“If we’re going to trust the ZBA, we need to have a process that we can trust,” O’Connor said. She also said that she believes the ZBA is currently “disregarding” elected officials, neighborhood associations, and abutters when some projects still get approved despite the fact that large numbers of people are opposed to them.

“I’m very excited for your home rule petition,” she told the City Council.

The City Council then spoke with members of the Walsh Administration to ask questions about the current ZBA process and make suggestions to how things might be able to be adjusted moving forward. “This is the beginning,” Councilor Edwards said. She added that the Council will have working sessions moving forward to finalize the language for the home rule petition, and then it can go before the Council for a vote. If passed, it will then move on to the State House for a vote.

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