Twice a month, developers, lawyers, City Hall aides and ordinary residents cram into a small room on the fifth floor of 1010 Mass Ave. — the bleak, block-long city building that houses Boston's Zoning Board of Appeal.
The ZBA is a kind of administrative court. Its eight-member board decides whether to grant exceptions, or "variances," from the city's zoning laws.
ZBA members plow through dozens of appeals at each hearing, voting "yea" or "nay" on variances for anything from roof decks to multi-million-dollar developments. And because Boston's zoning laws are so old — they haven't seen a comprehensive update since the 1960s — many, if not most, significant development projects require some form of zoning relief.
The ZBA is, in effect, the bureaucratic bottleneck through which much of the city's booming real estate development industry must pass. The process can seem byzantine to an outsider, almost inscrutable.
But now the ZBA is itself under new scrutiny.
In September, a former city employee, John Lynch, pleaded guilty to taking a bribe to try to influence a ZBA vote in 2017.
It's not clear he did influence any board members — and an independent audit commissioned by the mayor cleared current members of any impropriety — although it also revealed an active federal inquiry into real estate dealings tied to former ZBA member Craig Galvin who resigned shortly after Lynch's guilty plea.
WGBH News reported that Galvin acted as a real estate broker for multiple properties that received variances from the ZBA, including with his vote. Galvin hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing.
But for some, the scandal confirmed a longstanding sense that the ZBA's byzantine process is tilted toward developers, not ordinary residents.
“We’re looked at like we’re inhibiting progress — and we're not,” said Eileen Boyle, treasurer of the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association in Dorchester.
Boyle said her group isn't anti-development, but that when they have opposed projects at the ZBA, they often get short shrift.
“If you have an explanation for why, they’ll cut you short. If you have documentation, you give it to them, but they never look at it, they never review it,” Boyle said.
Developers before the ZBA usually come with a lawyer — one of a small handful of attorneys who appear before the ZBA all the time. Ordinary residents are restricted to one or two brief comments or else risk being unceremoniously cut off, as Boyle learned first-hand.
Boyle isn't the only one who suspects the ZBA's process favors developers.
Nat Taylor, a member of Gove Street Citizens Association, an East Boston civic group, heard similar sentiments from members of a local message board.
"People kept saying, 'Oh, the ZBA just approves everything in East Boston," Taylor recalled. "So I set out to answer the question."
For the mountains of cases the ZBA adjudicates, the only obvious public records of the board’s votes are buried in individual meeting minutes posted online.
So, Taylor wrote a computer script to sift through those minutes, compiled the data, and posted his findings online.
Zoning variances are supposed to be just that: exceptions to the rule. But Taylor found the opposite.
Out of about 2,700 cases between 2017 and 2019, Taylor found the ZBA had voted to deny variances in fewer than 100.
“At least for the last several years in Boston, it's more like 90 percent,” Taylor said.
In the wake of the bribery scandal, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh pledged change, telling WGBH News at a public event that “there are probably going to be some changes, and I think they're probably going to be more than tweaks.”
But in the weeks since those comments, Walsh still hasn't announced any changes, and it’s unclear how much authority the mayor has to change the ZBA.
The mayor appoints ZBA members, but is limited by the state law that created the ZBA and governs it — including language that reserves seats on the ZBA for specific real estate and construction industry groups.
There are increasing calls from some corners of Boston’s City Council to change the status quo.
Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards is calling for an overhaul of the ZBA.
Edwards has filed a home rule petition that would require more transparency and would change the language reserving seats for real estate and construction groups.
“The real estate industry should not sit on any board making regulatory decisions about real estate,” Edwards said in a speech introducing the measure in October.
Edwards has also called for the right of ordinary residents going before the ZBA to be represented by a neutral, city-funded attorney familiar with the city’s zoning laws.
Councilor Michelle Wu, meanwhile, iscalling for abolishing the city's redevelopment and planning agency, which now oversees zoning. Wu has argued that the city's current, outdated zoning laws are a major reason the ZBA wields so much power over development in Boston.
It's not clear either proposal has the support in the Council to pass — but next year will see four new members on the Council, all of whom have been critical of the city's development policies.
In the meantime, the ZBA chugs along, one appeal at a time.