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Pot question stalls filling vacancies on zoning board; some zoning hearings could be delayed

Normally, Zoning Board of Appeals Chairwoman Christine Araujuo opens the board's biweekly hearings with mundane requests to turn off cell phones and to take conversations outside and with a reminder that the hearings are being video recorded. Yesterday, though, she added a plea to the crowded room: The board was short of members and could everybody please contact their city councilors - and the chairwoman of the Committee on Planning, Development and Transportation in particular - to ask them to approve the new members the mayor proposed this past spring.

Araujo repeated her request several times during the day's hearings - and offered applicants the chance to have their hearings delayed - because the board normally has seven members at hearings, but only five showed up yesterday, which meant a single "no" vote would be enough to kill a proposal for at least a year since state law requires at least five yes votes.

"Anybody who has issues, please talk to your city councilor and please talk to the head of the committee," she said, referring to Councilor Michelle Wu (at large).

At issue is a dispute over marijuana zoning - specifically, the minimum distance allowed between marijuana establishments in Boston - stemming from the way the mayor's office supported two pot proposals in East Boston that were less than the half mile called for under the city zoning code. The board approved one of the proposals, then deferred action on the second.

Although Boston has a strong-mayor form of government, mayoral appointments to boards such as the ZBA require City Council approval. Wu and Councilor Lydia Edwards (East Boston, Charlestown, North End) are using their positions on the planning committee, which Wu chairs, to keep the appointment of two new full members and five alternates - who can fill in if regular members are absent - bottled up and away from the full council until the applicants and current board members answer the following question:

Do you believe that approving multiple new cannabis licenses less than 0.5 miles apart would effectively be granting a waiver to the marijuana buffer zone rule in the zoning code according to the language and intention of the rule?

Wu and Edwards first asked the question at a committee hearing on the proposed new members and reappointment of some existing members on May 31. Wu said this morning that three of the applicants have submitted answers - and that Araujo has not yet sent an answer. At the time, she said, she asked if she could formally ask the applicants the question or if the mayor's office wanted to coordinate answers, and that the mayor's office said it would do so.

Wu said she asked administration officials on Monday "whether they were still intending to chase down the rest." She added, "they said yes, that several were busy over the summer, etc."

In addition to asking people several times yesterday to ask councilors in general and Wu in particular - a frustrated Araujo at one point said the delay "is costing taxpayers money," because the city has to pay to advertise each hearing that is deferred.

At one point, attorney John Pulgini had just started a statement on a proposed new building on Talbot Avenue in Dorchester when Araujo stopped him to remind him he could seek an "administrative deferral" because "this is not a fully constituted board."

Pulgini and his client went ahead with his presentation on why the project should be granted variances.

Just before the board voted on the proposal, she addressed all of the aides to city councilors in the room - all there to speak about projects in their districts - and asked them to "do whatever you can do to make sure make alternates are in place." The board then unanimously approved the Talbot Avenue proposal.

At least through the first couple of hours of hearings yesterday, nobody asked for a deferral based on the shortage of members. But one applicant who sought a deferral for other reasons would have been forced to because board member Craig Galvin recused himself from the hearing - on a proposal to build a nine-unit residential building on Minot Street in Dorchester - which would have left only four board members to hear the case.

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Voting closed 10

Adam, were there any city councilors in attendance? Rumor says Tim McCarthy was there; if so, did you reach out to his staff for comment?

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Voting closed 14

For one specific hearing (about a condo building on Cummins Highway in Roslindale). I haven't asked him or his staff about this, though.

Frank Baker was also there, again for one specific hearing (on the Neighborhood House Charter School).

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Voting closed 11

Wow, sounds like there is some serious power play going on here between the mayor's office, the ZBA board members and the City Council. Adam, thanks a lot for explaining all this to the masses!

I have another suggested question for the Councillors when it comes to the appointment of ZBA board members:

Do you think that it is ethical for a former ZBA board chairman who was kicked out for misconduct by Mayor Menino to be one of the main lobbyists in front of the same board?

Here is a little context:

In the early 2000, Joseph Feaster used to represent Joseph LaRosa, one of the most disreputable developer in town, helping him win 43 out of zoning 43 cases while he was acting as the ZBA board chairman. After a lot of outcry, mayor Menino finally pushed Feaster out of the board for this extreme conflict of interest. The Boston Globe and other media outlets did some coverage of the issue at the time. While he is no longer officially affiliated with the ZBA, attorney Joseph Feaster remains a ZBA fixture. He is there at practically every hearing, often representing multiple clients in front of the board on the same hearing date, including plenty of questionable developers.

Christine Araujo was a ZBA board member for some 6 years while Feaster was the acting chairman. Now Ms Araujo is the chairwoman of the board. She and the rest of the board routinely vote on cases represented by Feaster and those cased still seem to get approved effortlessly. This little circus is quite amusing and irritating at the same time to folks who would rather play by the rules.

Here is a link to such a hearing earlier this year. (On that day alone, Feaster represented two other unrelated cases within one hour) https://youtu.be/Uxr9UnCdsjo?t=10227

On Feaster getting kicked out of the board in 2004:
http://www.baystate-banner.com/archives/stories/2004/June2404-1.htm

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Voting closed 20

Minutes of Zoning Board of Appeals, somewhat incomplete, for the most recent Public Meeting are available by email at https://www.boston.gov/departments/inspectional-services/zoning-board-ap...

Advocacy for even more complete Minutes at https://mass.gov/the-open-meeting-law

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Voting closed 13

He's hardly "one of the main lobbyists in front of the same board."

Yes, he's does show up before the board, but I don't see him just sitting there for long periods on Tuesdays - there are five or six other attorneys who are far more likely to simply block off Tuesday mornings on their calendars because of the number of hearings they do have before the board.

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Voting closed 6

Seems like a reasonable question to ask and presumably writing up a response shouldn't take too long. In this era of email etc I don't see why the applicants and board members can't just send something in on it.

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Voting closed 23

Because it’s not a real question and makes no sense to even ask. The answer is self evidently Yes as a legal matter. It’s like asking if the sun came up today. By definition, the Zoning Board hands out waivers. That’s literally why they exist. A matter would not be before the board if it didn’t require a waiver. So of course the Board granting approval is a waiver, it has to be! Wu and Edwards could just say they don’t want waivers granted and seek to change the law, that would at least be intellectually honest. Instead it’s this silly game of make-believe about the rule they previously passed and clearly didn’t understand the full implications of at the time.

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Voting closed 19

I mean, maybe it is a dumb requirement, but if so, it's a pretty easy one to fulfill and put the ball back in their court! Given that they apparently asked it back in May and no one's been able to respond to it, I'm guessing it's not that simple.

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Voting closed 8

The councilors do not understand that the half-mile buffer is a zoning rule that the ZBA can choose to waive. The councilors act like it’s an iron clad rule - it’s not and never was. Concerning that councilors don’t even understand the basics of zoning rules they create, especially Wu and Edwards who are both lawyers. This all stems from Edwards being mad that her chosen applicant did not get approved by the ZBA a few months back, and Wu is just using it as another way to weaken Walsh for when she runs against him in two years. Meanwhile, every day people suffer when they want to do some basic thing to their property if there’s no quorum, which constitutes most of the zoning board work.

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Voting closed 36

why can't the applicants for the board, and the current members, just say that and move this along?

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Voting closed 11

Of course it’s a waiver. Isn’t that why the ZBA exists; to grant waivers to the existing zoning code? What am I missing?

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Voting closed 14

While some of the powers of Boston have their hissy fit with each, individual homeowners who don't have the profit margins of developers, are forced to wait for zoning decisions.

Good way to shred democracy. Government that shreds the needs of citizens so that the governors can play with each other.

By the way: What is the bribe pay of zoning board members? Also, how many are functioning alcoholics? Rate of pay for non-alcoholics should be increased per.

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Voting closed 11

If this is an appellate board, dealing with people who want to override zoning laws, shouldn’t approvals be the exception? Instead, Araujos repeated warning that one no vote could delay a project at least a year, sound to me like her attitude is “drill, baby, drill.’

I congratulate to councilors for forcing responses at the stages they do have power, which sadly, are not plentiful.

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Voting closed 8

Take a look at how restrictive Boston Zoning is http://www.bostonplans.org/zoning. It would be crazy that within a hundred feet of a T-station it is 1F or 2F with no mechanism to increase that density.

Additionally, a large portion of proposals that appeal a zoning denial are just home owners who want to do minor alterations like build a deck or finish a basement, most of which are in violation of current zoning code. Fixing the zoning code will alleviate quite a bit of what has to go in front of the ZBA; but it is out of the hands of the ZBA and so here we are with the tools we have.

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Voting closed 11

Everytime we hear something like this, I'm always tempted to vote for a libertarian or anyone who can get rid of all these nonsensical regulations.

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Voting closed 8

Minutes of Tuesday 9 July 2019 for Zoning Board of Appeal
https://www.boston.gov/departments/inspectional-services/zoning-board-ap...

• Do Minutes meet good Practices of Open Government, Public Records, Open Meetings...?
https://www.mass.gov/service-details/open-meeting-law-educational-materials
http://www.sec.state.ma.us/arc/arcrmu/rmuidx.htm
https://www.boston.gov/departments/public-records

• How can Minutes be improved?

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Voting closed 7