In the wake of the scandal that rocked the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) last year, District 1 City Councilor Lydia Edwards has called for an overhaul of the city’s zoning board.
The John Lynch bribing scandal trickled down to the ZBA and led Mayor Martin Walsh to call for an investigation into the board.
Lynch, the city’s Director of Real Estate, pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting $50,000 from a developer to sway members of the ZBA on a vote.
Since his plea, ZBA Board Member Craig Galvin has resigned and former ISD Commissioner Buddy Christopher, who has been serving as an advisor to Mayor Walsh, also jumped ship from City Hall. Reports then surfaced that Galvin’s real estate company may have benefited from votes he took approving projects that he and his wife later sold.
As the scandal unfolded Edwards filed legislation to modernize and reform ZBA.
Last week the City Council approved Edwards’ call to reform the ZBA.
According to Edwards the changes 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.
Edwards’ legislation would also require that at least one renter and homeowner sit on the board and creates a new position to provide neutral advice to applicants and neighbors about the ZBA process.
“This is a huge win for us in terms of transparency,” said Councilor Edwards. “These changes will help bring the ZBA into the 21st century and bring us towards a more equitable and fair ZBA process.”
In late February, a number of changes to the ZBA were implemented through executive order by Mayor Martin Walsh that were included in Edwards’ original proposal.
These changes include 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.
“The ZBA plays a critical role for our city, but to be effective in this role and maintain public confidence, the board must operate at the highest standards of professionalism, ethics, and accessibility,” said Walsh at the time of signing the executive order. “The changes we are making today will go further than state ethics laws that currently govern the board and its members, modernize the function of the board to make it more accessible and transparent to the public, and I will file legislation to change the membership of the board to ensure that it is reflective of our neighborhoods and their concerns. I want to assure the residents of Boston that they can have confidence in the ZBA and that we will continue to protect what we love about our neighborhoods as we grow and evolve as a city.”
The additional changes approved by the Council last week were also proposed by Edwards but required legislative approval.
State Representative Adrian Madaro of East Boston spoke in support of the legislation while State Representative Dan Ryan of Charlestown said he would sponsor Edwards’ home rule petition at the State House.
“As the role of the ZBA has evolved into one that often has final say over the changing fabric of our communities, it is critical that the board itself become more transparent, accountable, and reflective of the city it oversees. This home rule petition is the first step toward achieving those goals,” said Madaro. “I’m proud to support this legislation, and to stand with the many residents who have called for change at the ZBA. I thank Councilor Edwards for her hard work and leadership on this issue.”
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.