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Mayor moves to make the zoning board more ethical - and more accessible online

Mayor Walsh today signed an order that both aims to reduce the risk of more ethical and legal issues related to the projects Zoning Board of Appeal members vote on and to make it easier for the public to get a look in advance at upcoming proposals

Walsh's order prohibits board members - who under state law must include representatives of local building organizations and unions - from voting on any projects they have had an interest in as long as five years earlier - and bars them from any business dealings with projects they've voted on for at least two years after they vote. They will also have to file annual financial-interest statements with the city clerk's office under the order, which also requires new members to file a statement listing all projects they or business partners have interests in that might come before the board.

The order comes after one month to the day after a former BPDA official was sentenced to 40 months in prison for taking bribes to help a developer win a zoning-board vote to extend his approval of a proposed South Boston project. No zoning-board members have bee charged in the case, although one resigned and the former head of ISD stepped down from his new city job.

The order also comes after a consultant recommended steps to bring some efficiencies to a board that often has to race through upwards of 40 separate proposals at its meetings in a booming city.

In addition to the ethics changes - which will also require new and re-appointed members to undergo "comprehensive ethics training" - the order also requires the board and the city IT department to develop a system within the next 18 months to let applicants file their plans online - and to make those plans accessible to the public. The BPDA already has such a system in place.

The order also requires the board and the IT department to develop an e-mail system to which residents can sign up to be alerted of new zoning applications, hearing dates and decisions in particular parts of the city - and to designate somebody as an ombudsperson to respond to queries from residents about board procedures and how to testify at hearings.

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Comments

After years of complaints and outright theft, now he wants changes. Can we get some at Inspection services where permits are routinely given as of right and they are not? Forcing people to sue to stop development. And yet no one form Zoning or ISD ever gets fired? Wonder why

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Voting closed 24

ISD does not have that in their mission. They grant permits when projects meet the requirements, not when some NIMBY decides that a project doesn't hurt his feels.

People have property rights and the rights to develop their property. Many areas of the country have a huge homeless problem due to people like you - the IGMFY crowd.

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Voting closed 38

Yes but when a permit is granted and after the fact it seems that it really needed 5 variances to have that permit issued. So it is in fact and illegal permit and the neighbors are forced to allow it after minor changes. Is that NIMBY or just illegal on its face. ISD has given out a permit when the landowner was under court order to not do any more work on the lot pending appeal. Its a joke. we have laws and rules and they are ignored or worse corrupted

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Voting closed 22

Totally agree with you on this one. Project abutting me needed at least 9 variances and despite widespread community opposition was granted variances by ZBA. Suing is the only way to stop fraudulent projects from moving ahead. You want to develop the property as of right? Go for it. You want to disrupt (edit: permanently alter) the neighborhood to make a quick buck and leave? GFY.

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Voting closed 22

...is not to just enact the will of abutters. It's to weigh their concerns against the housing needs of the city. If abutter opposition was reason enough for the ZBA to block a project, ZERO new apartments would be built in any neighborhoods where people already live (which is, of course, most of them). This is how it works in most other Massachusetts towns, and that's why Boston is basically the only municipality that's actually builds any housing.

https://twitter.com/mhpdata/status/1186397340082425856/photo/1

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Voting closed 16

job is to weigh abutters concerns against housing needs for the City, Section 7 of the Zoning regulations will have to be rewritten.
Nowhere does it say that City policy dictates zoning relief. Want different regulations--change the zoning code. The ZBA should enforce the regulations as written. That's their job.
Otherwise their decisions remain inconsistent from one case to another. There is no predicting what they will do even when two different cases are similar.

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Voting closed 13

Um, no. Projects only go before the ZBA if they are in violation of existing zoning. It is their job to grant exceptions to the rules when it makes sense to do so. The fact that you believe exceptions should only be granted when abutters approve is purely a matter of opinion.

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Voting closed 17

the Board gives zoning relief. That's the reason they exist. The reasons for giving the relief are clearly outlined in Section 7. Following current City policy is not one of the reasons listed.

Read the reasons for giving relief. Not listed, for instance, is a self-induced hardship when the developer overpays for a lot and then goes before the board and says they have to build 9 units in a two- or three family zone because that is the only way they can make money on their (poor) investment.

I did not say that abutters are always right, but abutters do have rights. The ZBA applies the rules inconsistently. They should follow the regulations on when to give zoning relief, i.e. variances, change of use, etc.

Unfortunately, the new order does not address this.

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Voting closed 13

You have a nice move here where Menino let NINBY residents write a draconian zoning code that allows almost nothing as of right, and then the same NIMBYs argue nothing should be granted a variance because they all violate the code. That’s exactly what happened here. Walsh should have thrown the code out the window on day one.

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Voting closed 22

Mostly, I don't care what's built. But in my case the ZBA clearly is going to put people at risk. That's all I can say right now pending legal actions.

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OMG NEIGHBORS!!!!

At risk of having neighbors? At risk of not getting their way? That's about it.

Please elaborate with some facts and data.

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Voting closed 9

so a lot is sold as non conforming, it is bought then given a permit even though it is under minimum square footage, the proposed building does not meet minimum setbacks.Any set back from side rear or street setbacks. The house covers too much as a percentage of the lot and it is too tall. This happened and i have too ask why do we have zoning laws then? the neighbors had to sue and the city said their only recourse was too accept a slightly smaller house with no porch or deck. of course the neighbors could sue further in court and spend on lawyers to stop the building on the non conforming lot and illegal building permit. The city doesn't care.

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Voting closed 8

The question of why we have zoning laws is indeed an interesting and colorful one. The short answer is that wealthy residents wanted a way to keep poor immigrants out of their neighborhoods. In fact many zoning codes were created immediately after the Supreme Court ruled racial covenants unconstitutional (See “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein). So if you ask me, the fact that our ZBA is so willing to ignore these codes is actually a great thing and the least they can do to correct this historical injustice. It’s the next best thing to eliminating these codes entirely.

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where developers want to build housing for "poor immigrants"? That would get more support from my neighborhood than $2M town homes that need multiple variances.

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Pine Street Inn recently got approval to build housing for homeless individuals in JP. That was after months of community meetings where nearby residents demanded a smaller project with less housing units...for the homeless. There's a similar project getting fought back against by abutters in Roslindale where the Home for Little Wanderers wants to build transitional housing for teenage orphans and abutters are pushing back on its scale. This NIMBYism is pervasive across the entire city and region for any type of housing. Residents love to complain about affordability but never seem to find their way to supporting projects like the ones I just described. Along the same lines, those same residents never seem to sell their own homes to anyone but the highest offer. Funny how that works.

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Voting closed 7

Residents also demanded more parking for those homeless people, resulting in an entire floor being chopped off of the building! Concerns for the homeless indeed.

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Voting closed 10

Um, condos cost $2m *because* we have a housing shortage. If they were plentiful, you wouldn't have 5-10 people bidding against one another to live in them and they would cost less. Also, when the only thing we allow developers to build is a 3 unit building when the market would justify 10-20 units, is it any wonder that those 3 units end up being crazy expensive?

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Voting closed 12

Zoning needs to be fixed so that developers can just build stuff without endless meetings with groups claiming to represent local residents AND to protect local residents from developers who can game the current system to get exemptions they shouldn't.

I'm sure Wu has a plan for this but as usual, Marty just has a bandaid solution.

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Voting closed 25

Zoning needs to be fixed so that developers can just build stuff without endless meetings with groups claiming to represent local residents AND to protect local residents from developers who can game the current system to get exemptions they shouldn't.

How do you propose that? When a project is proposed, locals claim their voices are being stifled and non-locals claim it takes too long to build.

Then suddenly the two sides switch positions when development moves somewhere else.

Everyone wants quick and easy development except when they don't like the project.

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Voting closed 16

The crux of the conflict is still the way that written zoning rules are so restrictive, while the zoning board is so permissive. If zoning rules were written with actual urban-planning behind them, then that would settle complaints before they happen. Zoning rules would dictate what can be built on each lot, and the zoning board wouldn't have to grant so many ad hoc variances.

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Voting closed 27

If projects got approved by right (no appeal needed) people would be even more lipshit over the fact they didn't have a say in the process at all.

The ZBA exists so that no project gets built without the public having an opportunity to object and the city have a legal way to stop the project. That's why everything beyond a new doorknob needs an appeal.

I have no love for the system but no politician (even Wu) would dare propose letting projects proceed without public input and the ZBA is where that happens.

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Voting closed 15

I think you've summed it up fairly but we all act like this is the standard way to proceed. I'd be curious how other similar sized US or EU cities deal with it.

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Trying to push through zoning changes which, in all likelihood, would be more welcoming to developers would be a challenging, painful process. On the other hand, the current system takes longer, but basically ends up with most things getting approved. It will take substantial political will to push through zoning changes, which so far no one has been willing to expend.

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Voting closed 14

I am suggesting that a more efficient system would have better designed zoning so that developers can't just throw up anything they'd like but also where NIMBYs don't have the ability to demand community approval for everything. Every time a developer has to have a meeting to listen to locals cry about parking impacts or how they'd rather have a park, etc... they are paying their lawyer/rep to be there which then gets rolled into the project costs. Every time a liaison from the mayor's office is at one of these pointless meetings, we're paying for that vs. having a city employee do something of value.

There will always been some projects which need hearings, but I think the majority of residential projects should either be clear non-starters or clearly approved w/o letting the local boomer NIMBYs weigh in. The current system is set up for political favor trading and empowerment of non-representative committees.

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Voting closed 22

I'm sure Wu has a plan for this

Not sure about that. Her last plan was to abolish the BRA and let NIMBY abutters control things. That's probably the only way to get rid of the BRA and actually things worse.

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Paypal, Venmo, Zelle addresses for ZBA members be far off?

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if zoning wasn't such a fuckshow, owners could stay in their properties and modify them to suit their changing needs, building communities. instead they sell because the only people who can deal with the byzantine process to change your basement to a studio in-law for your aging parent is a developer. so they buy your house and do it, and sell it for four times as much. the city is super friendly to nimby's and developers but sane people just trying to live their lives in their houses, absolutely not

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the city is super friendly to nimby's and developers but sane people just trying to live their lives in their houses, absolutely not

This is exactly right.

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Voting closed 8