Bicon gets permits, but no public input

March 6, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

Mayor’s friend plays mystery role

FOREST HILLS—The controversial Bicon dental business at 501 Arborway last month quietly received a city permit legalizing its massive offering of training courses—a use of the property that was ruled illegal a year ago but has continued.

And other issues with the building that the community believed were unresolved actually have either been cleared up by earlier permits, or were not problems at all, according to Gary Moccia, head of the building division of the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD).

“This is ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” said resident David Vaughn of Moccia’s claims, saying neighbors do not agree that all is right with Bicon now.

While none of these permits requires a public hearing, according to Moccia, ISD is aware of the contro-versy over Bicon’s large-scale, five-year expansion, including a Boston City Council hearing in 2007. But, Moccia acknowledged in a Gazette interview, ISD didn’t tell the community about any of it.

“It’s an oversight,” Moccia said, adding that ISD is now arranging for a community meeting—something neighbors have requested for years.

All of the new information came to light only when the Gazette noticed the recent permit issuance on a city list under the property’s
official address of 123 Morton St.

Tobin’s office was unaware of the recent permits despite having a standing request for updates from ISD.

“Why is it that this place is getting special treatment?” asked Tobin in a Gazette interview.

Vaughn said he has an idea why: “Clearly, the mayor has an interest,” he said.

Vaughn revealed that Dennis DiMarzio, a longtime friend of Mayor Thomas Menino and a former top official in his administration, has been playing a behind-the-scenes role, brokering meetings about Bicon and promising public input that has not happened.

Asked who exactly DiMarzio is representing in the Bicon controversy, Vaughn said, “That’s a good ques-tion….He said, ‘I’ve been asked to come in and help move this process along.’ You can imagine who asked him.”

DiMarzio, who currently chairs the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC), did not return Gazette phone calls to the BWSC and his home. Nick Martin, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, had no immediate comment on DiMarzio’s participation in the Bicon controversy and Menino’s position about it.

Dr. Vincent Morgan, the head of Bicon and a Jamaica Plain resident, did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

Moccia said he was not aware of DiMarzio’s involvement, adding it had come up in a meeting with ISD Com-missioner William Good and Assistant Commissioner Susan Rice after the Gazette asked about it. “I have no idea who he’s working for, or if he is working for someone,” Moccia said of DiMarzio.

The city’s zoning Board of Appeal last year blasted ISD for “erring” in issuing occupancy permits to Bi-con. Among ISD errors was its longstanding claim that Bicon’s widely advertised training courses did not exist. That training-course use is what ISD has now permitted.

Colleen Keller, the JP Coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, says she is organiz-ing a community meeting for later this month at Good’s request. It appears that request was made after the Gazette called ISD to ask about the recent permit issuance.

Keller said the meeting will “make sure everything’s out on the table and make sure why and how ISD made their decisions.” Residents “deserve a public forum,” she said.

But if ISD is correct, that means that a public meeting will finally happen only when it is too late for public input to matter. That fits the pattern of ISD involvement with the Bicon building, where required reviews have happened only long after construction and uses were in place.

ISD officials—including Good and Moccia—for years insisted that there were no violations at Bicon, though at least some were obvious. ISD eventually relented and issued citations. A notable example was the training courses, which ISD at first said did not exist, then said were only an “occasional” use and then finally cited as illegal.

The city’s zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) blasted ISD’s decision-making last year and called for Bicon’s occupancy permit to be revoked.

Residents and Tobin’s office believed that decision left several outstanding violations. But, Moccia told the Gazette this week, that isn’t so.

Moccia said that a company sign on the front lawn—the object of one ISD citation—was approved by a Boston Parks Commission review and was permitted by ISD last year. That review also approved plants that screen the parking lot from neighbors and the design of a cupola atop the building, he said. Moccia said that the sign was never in violation of zoning code, leaving it unclear why and how ISD cited it earlier.

Another ISD citation was about the building’s use. That citation appeared to say clearly that a “clinical lab” and “education and medical training” uses were not properly permitted. But, Moccia said this week, the lab use is allowed under the zoning code.

The training courses were not OK. But they are now that ISD last month issued an occupancy permit allow-ing them as an “as of right” use.

That means the use is allowed under the city zoning code and therefore no public process is required. According to the permit, training courses are allowed as long as they aren’t on the first floor, and Bicon has submitted plans showing a second-floor use.

Tobin’s office has a standing request with ISD for updates on the Bicon situation and is supposed to re-ceive as-of-right notices regularly, according to Tobin and his aides. But, they said, they heard nothing about the training course permit until the Gazette notified them.

“It looks like it was being slid through on a form for as-of-right projects,” Tobin said. “I know mis-takes happen. This one is hard to believe, [that] they didn’t realize this was going to cause a furor further.”

There is also a lingering question whether the Bicon building falls under a state greenbelt protection overlay district because of its proximity to the Arborway, which is technically state parkland. ISD says Bicon is not in that area—though a prior ISD decision in the 1980s about an adjacent lot says the overlay district does cover the area.

Tobin said there should have been a public process about the large building whether particular permits require it or not.

“As far as I’m concerned, ISD is wasting a lot of people’s valuable time,” Tobin said. “For the love of God, I just don’t understand why they won’t engage in a community process.”

If the community can’t have input, Tobin said, “Why don’t we just shut down ISD and let people do what they want to do?”

While there will now be a community meeting, Keller acknowledged that it’s late in the game. “I didn’t understand why it never happened before,” said Keller, who has been on the job only about 16 months.

“I want ISD to bring out maps. I want [residents] to see how things didn’t need to go through a review,” Keller said, adding that should include an explanation of the greenbelt overlay district.

Bicon also has refused to meet with neighbors, according to Tobin and the residents. Two years ago, Tobin met privately with Morgan and other Bicon officials in a meeting he described as bizarre. At the start of the meeting, Tobin said, Morgan told a rambling story about the explorer Admiral Richard Byrd that concluded with the advice, “‘I don’t trust a man who puts salt on his steak.’”

More to the point, Tobin said, Morgan refused to meet with neighbors. That led Tobin to call a City Coun-cil hearing that began to crack open ISD’s claims that Bicon had no zoning violations.

“The guys at Bicon seem to think I have something against them,” Tobin said. “I’m not [against them]. I’m a pro-business person.”

But public process must be the same for everybody, he said.

Keller said Bicon representatives will be invited to the community meeting as well. “I know the owner of the building has been very uninvolved and uninterested” in community process, she said.

Tobin said Bicon is one example of why he supports City Councilor Mike Ross’s idea of requiring Boston Redevelopment Authority design review of large-scale as-of-right projects. He also praised the Gazette for regularly publishing a list of as-of-right permits issued in the neighborhood, adding that he has told other newspapers that they should follow the Gazette’s model.

DiMarzio

Tobin’s meeting with Morgan was organized behind the scenes by DiMarzio, Tobin said.

Tobin said DiMarzio had contacted him with the meeting offer. “I think he’s friends [with] Mr. Morgan. I don’t think he’s getting paid.”

DiMarzio also called the meeting with Vaughn and fellow neighbor Jerry O’Connor last year, which was held in Tobin’s City Hall office, according to Vaughn.

Vaughn said that DiMarzio’s self-identification was never more explicit than saying, “‘I know the doctor [Morgan]. He provides an excellent business.” He said he and O’Connor later learned of DiMarzio’s connections with Menino.

When their meeting ended, Vaughn said, “[DiMarzio] went with us to the elevators and then went straight into the Mayor’s Office.”

In the meeting, DiMarzio said he wanted to see if there were points of agreement or compromise that could be reached between neighbors and Bicon. Vaughn said his response was that such discussion sounded good, but could not come in place of a public community process.

“He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘There will be a process,’” Vaughn said. There has been no com-munity process.

DiMarzio is cited in Boston Globe archives as a friend of Menino. From 1996 to 2007, he served as the city’s chief operating officer under Menino. He simultaneously served as acting fire commissioner in 2000-01. On top of all of that, he has served as BWSC chair since 1994.

DiMarzio, a resident of Menino’s Hyde Park neighborhood, was heavily involved in union negotiations and mediations during his service under Menino. In 2004, he drew press attention when he reportedly threw two coins at the leader of the Boston Police Department officers’ union in a bargaining session.

DiMarzio was one of three city officials who drove unmarked, police-style city vehicles until press cov-erage halted the practice.

DiMarzio also had ISD problems of his own. In the 1990s, during an internal funding dispute with the de-partment, the head of ISD pulled a surprise inspection of DiMarzio’s City Hall office.

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