Zoning board votes on controversial project
Abutters claim condo project doesn’t comply with zoning laws
In February, a group of abutters to a planned 11-unit condominium building in Mattapan obtained a stop-work order halting construction after giving the Zoning Board of Appeal a list of complaints about the project, including disputed property lines, the shadows the five-story building would cast, and lack of space between the proposed building and abutting property lines.
But Monday of last week, before the ZBA had issued a ruling on the neighbors’ complaints, workers were already prepping the site to resume construction, trucking in portable toilets and building materials.
During the board’s Tuesday meeting the next day, board members voted on whether the city’s Inspectional Services Division (ISD) erred in granting developers an as-of-right permit to build the 11-unit building on a parcel of land that the abutters said has no frontage on River Street and lacks a valid easement to the street for utilities.
The board voted to uphold the ISD determination through a voice vote. During the meeting, which was held via Zoom, Board President Christine Araujo said the city’s Law Department issued a report on the neighbors’ complaint, but the abutters were not given a copy.
“We have not received in writing a response to the full brief that we were asked to submit at your request,” said abutter Susan Lombardi-Verticelli shortly before her mic was muted during the hearing.
Araujo said the neighbors’ questions were submitted to the city’s Law Department, which issued a ruling to the zoning board, but said the ruling was not a public document.
Last Wednesday, construction resumed on the project after a four-month hiatus that was lengthened by the COVID pandemic with its ban on construction.
The development projects at 52-54 River Street have sparked controversy since the ISD in 2017 granted a team of developers an as-of-right permit for a seven-unit, four-story condo building at 52R River Street, even though the parcel appears on city zoning maps as land-locked. Under state law, housing cannot be built without frontage on a public road that allows access to water, sewer, gas and electric lines. That building was completed last year, and units have been sold.
An as-of-right designation allows developers to build without a community review process. The designation essentially means that the project complies with already-established zoning requirements that govern aspects such as how close a structure can be built next to other buildings, whether or not a project meets requirements around density and parking, shadows cast on neighboring homes and other factors.
In 2019, a limited liability corporation owned by developers Tim Longden, Edward Ahern and Perry Bruno received from ISD an as-of-right permit to build another 11 units on an adjacent parcel, 54 River Street. Lombardi-Verticelli and her neighbors say the plans submitted included parking spaces and decking well within 20 feet of the rear property line, in violation of the city’s zoning code.
The finished seven-unit condo building and proposed 11-unit building are both zoned in a neighborhood shopping district, which was designated as such when Star Market received approval to build a supermarket nearby. The abutting homes are smaller single-family homes that would be dwarfed by the proposed 11-unit building. The abutters argue that while the neighborhood shopping district designation does allow for dense development, it applies to commercial or mixed-use buildings, not to purely residential buildings.
Because the ZBA did not share any information about the city Law Department ruling on their complaint, the abutters do not know how city officials justified the as-of-right designations for the condo buildings.
Araujo asked just one question during the three-or-so minutes of the two-hour meeting dedicated to 54 River Street.
“I want to just confirm that this building is within 20 feet of the rear lot line, can anybody confirm that?” she said.
George Morancy, attorney for the developers, said he recalled that the ISD had verified that.
“I don’t have personal knowledge,” he said. “I have not verified that myself, but my recollection is that that was the testimony of the Inspectional Services Department.”
City agencies under fire
The latest chapter of the River Street controversy comes as city departments governing real estate development come under increased scrutiny. City councilors proposed a raft of reforms aimed at making the city’s development processes more transparent and weeding out corruption after a Boston Planning and Development Agency worker was indicted for accepting a bribe from a developer. William Christopher, who served as ISD Commissioner when the 52R River Street project was approved, took a leave of absence from his job as a special advisor to the mayor last year and Craig Galvin, a real estate broker, resigned from the Zoning Board of Appeal.
But Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council Chair Fatima Ali Salaam said a continuing lack of transparency at ISD undermines public confidence in the agency.
“For a city of our size, everything should be very transparent and easy to find for any business owner or resident,” she said. “ISD is one of the most important departments. It an agency that actually interprets the zoning code. If residents don’t trust the department, that’s very dangerous. It’s a systemic breakdown.”
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, whose office has met with the 52-54 River Street abutters, said the city’s approval of the development projects show more reforms are needed.
“Our zoning code and ZBA process are meant to be helpful tools to plan responsible development and for residents to advocate for development that is in the best interest of their neighborhood, and in this case, these tools have failed this community,” Campbell said in a statement emailed to the Banner. “I’m not opposed to as-of-right development, but there is a lot more the city must do to ensure neighbors are not blindsided by development that will inevitably have impacts on their health, safety, financial property and quality of life, even if it is as-of-right by our zoning code.”