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Guest Commentary: Room 801, Losing Sleep Over Boston’s Board of Appeals

The following is a commentary that appeared in condensed form in the January 22, 2010 edition of the Boston Business Journal. The full version is reproduced below.

Room 801: Losing Sleep Over Boston’s Board of Appeals

It’s a nondescript room with the ambience of a missile silo on the 8th floor of Boston City Hall. The sound system is inoperable and the uncomfortable chairs were requisitioned during former Mayor Flynn’s administration. You would not expect such a charmless setting to be at the vortex of public hearings changing the face of the city and the lives of its inhabitants as surely as the Big Dig.

In a bi-weekly ritual, the Board of Appeals churns out controversial decisions  for zoning variances and special permits. This municipal agency flies beneath the radar screen of public accountability, and, by all appearances, that’s the way the BOA mayoral appointees and certain special interests prefer it to remain. This board wields immense power over the expansion of restaurants morphing into raucous bar-lounges and late-night watering holes. A neighborhood can be transformed in a heartbeat from a viable mixed residential and commercial district to a noisy, congested entertainment destination. Indifferent to uncontrolled growth, the BOA has given the green light to establishments which have greased the skids with letters of support from out-of-town patrons and thank-you’s from local charities strategically targeted for widely-publicized donations.

A new-comer to Tuesday morning sessions of the BOA enters City Hall’s black hole of acoustics which board members have joked about for years but have never bothered to fix. An observer has difficulty understanding the muffled presentations of applicants. Staffers from the mayor’s and city councilors’ offices ring the walls and toss in an occasional shout-out for  a favored constituent. Abutters and neighbors who have sacrificed a morning’s salary to attend these public hearings are frustrated by inaudible exchanges which only those lucky enough to  score front-row seats can decipher. This chaos passes for due process of law.

Some board members appear to have already made up their minds in advance of a hearing. They can be rude, dismissive, even contemptuous of neighborhood groups with meager resources to compete with high-priced lawyers of monied applicants. A list of BOA appointees kept by the city clerk reveals that their three-year terms of office expired several mayoral elections ago. Is this  what democracy looks like: politics as usual with checks and balances rusted in place?

The Menino administration has stood by in silence as the BOA has targeted certain districts like the North End for late-night activities. The mayor get his haircut and buys bread in Boston’s Little Italy but, like the owners of major local nightspots, heads home to a tranquil rest miles away. Meanwhile without public oversight mandated by law, the board is artificially altering the circadian rhythm of a celebrated urban neighborhood. And that is something to lose sleep over for anyone who cherishes Boston as a livable city.
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North End resident, Thomas F. Schiavoni is plaintiff in a civil case challenging the validity of an entertainment license issued by the city of Boston.

Boston Globe 9/29/09 front-page feature on North End late-night revelry and noise

Board of Appeal description on the City of Boston’s website, including terms of office, times and place of hearings
(See Question #1: Who makes up the Board of Appeals?)
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