June 24, 2004

Feaster ouster spurs call for board reform

Yawu Miller

When the story of Zoning Board of Appeal President Joseph Feaster’s apparent conflict of interest reached the Boston Globe, Mayor Thomas Menino was quick to remove him from his post on the board, which reviews controversial development projects.

The conflict arose when Feaster agreed to serve as an attorney for a developer — Joe LaRosa — whose projects often generated significant neighborhood opposition. Much to the chagrin of activists in Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester, LaRosa’s projects often sailed through the Zoning Board of Appeal’s process despite clear violations of building codes.

Despite Menino’s speedy response, however, many activists are concerned that Feaster’s apparent conflict of interest may be just the tip of the iceberg for the board. City councilors Maura Hennigan, Chuck Turner and Charles Yancey wrote a letter to Boston’s Corporation Counsel last week asking for copies of all guidelines governing city review boards.

“Much of this is really a failure of the city administration to provide parameters, not only to the ZBA, but to all city boards,” said Hennigan.

The Banner first reported on Feaster's business dealings in May, when residents of Monroe Street in Roxbury butted heads with LaRosa over a home on which he had begun construction. The neighbors called the city's Inspectional Services Department, which shut the project down for violation of the city's building code — a move which normally sends developers before the Zoning Board of Appeal.

Feaster, who represented LaRosa at a meeting with the local neighborhood association, maintains a residence a block away from the lot on which LaRosa was building. Feaster also owns a home in Stoughton, where his car is registered, and has since come under fire for his claiming Boston as his primary residence.

Since removing Feaster from the ZBA, Menino has asked that members of all boards meet with members of the Ethics Commission for review of possible conflicts of interest.

But Turner questions whether the mayor has gone far enough, noting that although Feaster recused himself from votes when LaRosa came before the board, the other board members voted in favor of the developer’s unpopular projects.

“My own view is that there is such an extensive number of projects approved by the ZBA that an examination of the records to determine how many of the projects had support of the community would be warranted,” he said. “We need to have a clear idea of how the board handled these cases.”

The Globe investigation found that LaRosa received variances to build on 43 lots in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan while represented by Feaster. Projects typically come before the ZBA when a developer’s plans are in violation of city zoning codes. Many of the lots LaRosa built on were smaller than the 5,000 square feet required for a two family house in city building codes.

Many of LaRosa’s projects went before the ZBA after abutters complained about them to the city’s Inspectional Services Department, according to neighborhood activists interviewed by the Banner.

“He was doing really outrageous things,” said Shirley Kressel, who heads the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods. “People were always asking ‘how does he get away with it?’”

The ZBA includes representatives from the building trades, developers, real estate professionals and neighborhood representatives. Feaster, a longtime supporter of Mayor Thomas Menino, was appointed as a community representative shortly after Menino took office in 1993.

Kressel said the ZBA, the BRA’s board and the Zoning Commission are rife with potential ethics violations.

“All of these commissions have people who are likely to have conflicts of interest,” she said. “People who are lawyers, who work in real estate. Arguably, people in the construction trades are a conflict of interest. It’s just a collection of conflicts of interest.”

Ousting Feaster from the board will prove little more than a symbolic gesture if the city fails to conduct a comprehensive review of its boards, according to Kressel.

“This is corrosive to public confidence,” she said. “Rather than getting rid of the offending party and hoping the problem goes away, it would be better to conduct a thorough review and make sure this is not just the tip of the iceberg.”

Hennigan said she has not yet received a response to her letter to the city’s corporation counsel, which was dated June 8. The mayor’s press office did not respond to calls for comment by the Banner’s press deadline.


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