Sign variance shot down by zoning committee

August 13, 2010
By

Rebeca Oliveira

FOREST HILLS—In the latest installment in an ongoing feud between Bicon Dental Implants on Morton Street and its neighbors, a variance for an existing free-standing sign on its property was not approved by the Jamaica Plain Council Zoning Committee at its July 8 meeting at Curtis Hall, with eight board members voting against and one abstaining.

Bicon, whose property owner is Debbie LLC, had a hearing scheduled with the city’s zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) at City Hall on July 27, at which time, it requested and was granted a postponement until September 7.

A free-standing, outdoor sign has existed at 501 Arborway (legally 123 Morton St.) for a decade, but it has been torn down and rebuilt a number of times. Plans for the sign were approved by the Boston Parks Department in 2000 and 2008, but Bicon received citations from the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) in 2007, six-and-a-half years after the first sign was constructed.

The citations were for lack of a conditional use variance and for its location. Residents say they oppose the sign because it does not meet regulatory dimensions, because it was built after submitted plans were rejected, and because Bicon is, as ever, not willing to work with its neighbors.

In July 2009, after the city originally said the sign was OK, ISD later cited Bicon for erecting the sign without a permit. After nothing happened for months, the city said the sign had been legal all along.
But in July, 2009, ISD Commissioner Bill Good said that the business had the options of removing the sign, requesting a variance or submitting plans for a new one.

Controversy over Bicon began in 2006, when the company proposed opening an Italian restaurant on its third floor and refused to meet with neighbors. After the restaurant controversy, residents began asking how Bicon–whose business includes a dental practice and training courses–added changes, including a third floor, with no public review.

“We’re sick up to here,” Jerry O’Connor, a Yale Terrace resident, who has been involved with the struggle since 2006, said at the Zoning Committee meeting last week.

Ty dePass, another resident, read from a prepared statement that “stubborn pursuit of [Bicon’s] own private interests, regardless of impact or consequences … can only be described as aggressive, arrogant, and insensitive.”

David Baron, chair of the Zoning Committee, added, “Bicon is to be faulted for a long history of arrogance toward its neighbors.”

Gazette calls and e-mails to Bicon and its attorney, John Griffin Jr., who was at the meeting, went unanswered after the meeting.

The Bicon skirmish with the residents of adjacent Yale Terrace, though started because of various construction projects, has been exacerbated by confusion, misinformation and negligence by city offices, according to residents.

ISD, they have said, has issued bewildering, sometimes contradictory rulings—several of them later invalidated by the ZBA—between long periods of silence. Another factor is the property’s proximity to the Arborway, which would place it under a “greenbelt preservation overlay district” (GPOD), making regulations even more stringent. Neighbors, using GoogleMaps, argue that it is under such protection.

Lisa Timberlake, of the ISD, said that, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority and a 2008 letter from the Parks Department, the Bicon building is not in a GPOD. As for claims of bad communication between ISD and ZBA or other faults, she had no comment.

Residents say Bicon has worsened the situation by failing to acquire permits, claiming permits were never required and applying for variances after changes were completed—for example, the illuminated sign.
“This is zoning by asking for forgiveness instead of permission,” David Vaughn, a Yale Terrace property owner long involved in the controversy, said.

Griffin, of the legal firm of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, said that he “feel[s] really uncomfortable in perpetuating a mistake the zoning committee might have made” with regards to past violations and misunderstandings. He added that Bicon is willing to correct any more mistakes.

“Wouldn’t it be a good idea to see if [Bicon would] be in violation first?” asked Red Burrows, a member of the Zoning Committee and a Forest Hills resident. “It’d be a really good idea to talk to your neighbors first,” he added.

As the board voted down the variance, Baron said, “I can’t support any variances until Bicon has improved its relationship with its neighbors.”
Thomas McDonough from City Councilor At-Large Stephen Murphy’s office was the only person not in the employ of Bicon to voice support for the variance at the meeting.

Music approved

Earlier in the meeting, The Haven, a restaurant that recently opened at 401 Centre St., was approved for a variance to allow acoustic music on the premises after 10:30 p.m., with no opposition. The Haven is owned by JP resident Jason Waddleton, who said he hopes to bring music to the space two to three times weekly. The variance was later approved by the ZBA at a hearing on July 13. In a telephone interview last week, Waddleton said he is now taking the next step, applying to the Boston Licensing Board for an acoustic music permit.

John Ruch contributed to this article.