Following Lynch scandal, zoning review may not be enough

City's antiquated building rules come in for scrutiny

BOSTON MAYOR Marty Walsh is launching a review of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal after a Boston Planning and Development Agency official agreed to plead guilty to accepting a bribe.

John Lynch, former assistant director of real estate at the Economic Development Corporation, which sits within the planning and development agency, accepted $50,000 in 2018 to help a real estate developer get a permit extension. Walsh doesn’t know much about what went down, but in the meantime he is asking the law firm of Sullivan & Worcester to conduct a comprehensive review of the zoning board and its processes.

The agency has the power to usher through construction projects of varying sizes — from the minor renovation of a kitchen to the creation of apartment buildings. The seven-member board shapes the city’s 26 neighborhoods, helping to determine how they look and how densely populated they are.

A Boston Globe editorial says the city’s zoning system is “ripe for corruption,” mostly by design. “Long before the board became ground zero for a federal bribery case, its way of doing business — under a unique and antiquated zoning code — has succeeded in politicizing virtually every construction project under their purview,” the editorial said. “And make no mistake, that’s exactly the way the elected officials who weigh in most often before this largely obscure board like it.”

The editorial suggests city councilors and the Carpenter’s Union have a lot of sway over what gets done and how.

“When our system is built on special approvals and exceptions, it leads to the possibility for things like this [the Lynch case],” said City Councilor Michelle Wu, who has criticized the system for providing the “greatest input to a small number of decision-makers.”

Earlier this summer, Wu and City Councilor Lydia Edwards held up the City Council confirmation of several Zoning Board of Appeal members who they claimed had potential conflicts of interest–mostly around zoning for marijuana dispensaries. Zoning board of appeals chair Christine Araujo fired back and accused the councilors of “posturing” and negatively impacting development in the city.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

It might be worth it to reexamine how the city looks at zoning as a whole. Boston is operating under rules created almost 50 years ago; those rules are often derided as antiquated and ineffective for a 21st century city struggling to manage the balance between history and innovation. Even more worrisome, the rules grant tremendous power to people who aren’t even elected; zoning board members are appointed by Walsh every three years.

Whether or not a comprehensive review of the zoning board by a mayor with strong connections to labor is enough remains to be seen. Sullivan & Worcester will review the ZBA’s approval processes and recommend “what, if any, changes need to happen.”