One of the most confusing, stoic and steadfast Boards in Boston City government – the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) – is one step closer to becoming more accessible and navigable for the general public and property owners as well.
Councilor Lydia Edwards announced late last week that the City Council had unanimously passed her Home Rule legislation that contains further reforms to the ZBA – building on changes she called for in 2019 and that Mayor Martin Walsh instituted with an executive order this past February.
“This is a massive win for us built on top of another big win in February,” said Edwards. “We introduced these changes last year, and the mayor pushed many of them into action with his executive order in February. We all agreed this government institution that was introduced in 1966, and has continued to operate much the same way it did when introduced, needed an upgrade. We got a lot done immediately. This Home Rule addresses some changes that couldn’t be made with the executive order.
The changes in the Home Rule include adding environmental and urban planning experts to the board, setting term limits for board members, requiring board members to recuse themselves from projects they’ve been involved with in the past five years (currently two), and requiring quarterly reports on the variances and conditional use permits given out by the board in each neighborhood. The legislation would also require that at least one renter and homeowner sit on the board and it creates a new position to provide neutral advice to applicants and neighbors about the ZBA process.
The process now moves to the State House where State Rep. Dan Ryan will champion the change along with Eastie State Rep. Adrian Madaro.
“Our chances to get it approved soon increased because the State House extended their session,” she said. “It will be championed by our very own Dan Ryan.”
One of the exciting changes, Edwards said, is that the ZBA will have to file quarterly reports on how many permits and variances were approved in the quarter. That will also be broken down by neighborhood so the public knows how many, and what has been approved.
“There’s going to be no more confusion on this,” he said. “Every neighborhood thinks they’re getting the brunt of it, but this will prove it.”
Another big change would be the ombudsman to help the community and applicants to figure out what’s going on. That’s a major improvement for a Board that often has seven-hour meetings and goings-on that are hard to hear and/or understand due to legal jargon and poor microphone amplification.
“That’s something to help the common folks, giving them advice on when they need to go up to speak, where to go and whether they lost or won,” she said.
In late February, the changes included expanding interpreting services during board hearings and making both applications and records available online for review by the public. Additionally, notices will be posted and delivered electronically. ZBA board members must provide financial disclosures and get regular zoning law training. Finally, applicants for variances must disclose their ownership interests.
Councilor Edwards first introduced her proposal in the fall of 2019 and re-filed the
legislation in January 2020. Hearings were held in February and July before the council approved the reforms during last week’s council meeting.