Here is a stunning number. According to the minutes of two years of Zoning Board of Appeals meetings, they have approved 105 of the 107 variances brought before them.
That number alone should tell you about how little the ZBA is concerned about the importance of adhering to the city’s zoning requirements or the concerns expressed to them by the neighbors of projects.
The neighbors of Murphy Lane met with Mayor Meg Kelly, city attorneys Vince DeLeonardis and Tony Izzo and city planner Susan Bardon.
The neighbors were very impressive. They were articulate, courteous, and well informed. They documented a litany of abuses by the ZBA and the building inspector Steve Shaw. Many of these have been documented on this blog. As just one recent example, the neighbors noted that work done on Murphy Lane included construction done that was inconsistent with the plans that had been submitted to the city. In this case, the city was aware that the owner had changed their design and was also aware that no revised plans had been submitted let alone approved. So much for accountability.
As documented on this blog, the poster child of inappropriate variance approval was the barn “rehab” on Murphy Lane. This project violated the most basic concepts of appropriate design. It involved building a house on a lot that was a fraction of the minimum area required. You name the requirement, ZBA approved a variance for it. The setbacks from the alley and the neighbors were radically reduced. Parking? Cut in half. The worst thing was that it was on a narrow alley. Only secondary buildings were supposed to be allowed on alleys. The ZBA decision to approve this project was split but nevertheless, these variances like pretty much every variance, were granted.
So to clarify things I asked the attorneys, the city planner, and the Mayor whether they considered this kind of approval a serious problem. Mr. DeLeonardis declined to answer. He noted that he was required to defend the city boards. I responded that the legal questions on this property had been decided in an agreement between the city and the owner and I was not asking him about the legality of it but the appropriateness in terms of good planning. He declined to respond repeating what he viewed as his responsibilities as the city’s lawyer. I asked the Mayor and she declined to discuss it. Not surprisingly, Susan Bardon who works with the ZBA also did not respond.
Mayor Kelly did offer some thoughts on the ZBA as it relates to the charter. It is unclear how much state law supersedes the city’s ability to change the ZBA. The charter commission is considering shortening the terms of the ZBA (and maybe some other boards), limiting the number of terms allowed, and requiring approval by the full city council of mayoral appointments. The Mayor was particularly emphatic on the latter. This was impressive to me. Politicians are normally jealous about any encroachment of their authority. Currently, the Mayor has the sole authority to appoint the members of the land use boards.
I am not discouraged by the Mayor’s reticence to fully respond. I believe that she was thoroughly engaged in listening to the neighbors and sympathetic. I think the Mayor is not comfortable speaking off the cuff and prefers to consider issues carefully before offering public comment. My only concern is that all of this may be lost given all the other major issues on her plate. She indicated that she planned to get back to the neighbors so we shall see.