Normally, Zoning Board of Appeals Chairwoman Christine Araujuo opens the board's biweekly hearings with mundane requests to turn off cell phones and to take conversations outside and with a reminder that the hearings are being video recorded. Yesterday, though, she added a plea to the crowded room: The board was short of members and could everybody please contact their city councilors - and the chairwoman of the Committee on Planning, Development and Transportation in particular - to ask them to approve the new members the mayor proposed this past spring.
Araujo repeated her request several times during the day's hearings - and offered applicants the chance to have their hearings delayed - because the board normally has seven members at hearings, but only five showed up yesterday, which meant a single "no" vote would be enough to kill a proposal for at least a year since state law requires at least five yes votes.
"Anybody who has issues, please talk to your city councilor and please talk to the head of the committee," she said, referring to Councilor Michelle Wu (at large).
At issue is a dispute over marijuana zoning - specifically, the minimum distance allowed between marijuana establishments in Boston - stemming from the way the mayor's office supported two pot proposals in East Boston that were less than the half mile called for under the city zoning code. The board approved one of the proposals, then deferred action on the second.
Although Boston has a strong-mayor form of government, mayoral appointments to boards such as the ZBA require City Council approval. Wu and Councilor Lydia Edwards (East Boston, Charlestown, North End) are using their positions on the planning committee, which Wu chairs, to keep the appointment of two new full members and five alternates - who can fill in if regular members are absent - bottled up and away from the full council until the applicants and current board members answer the following question:
Do you believe that approving multiple new cannabis licenses less than 0.5 miles apart would effectively be granting a waiver to the marijuana buffer zone rule in the zoning code according to the language and intention of the rule?
Wu and Edwards first asked the question at a committee hearing on the proposed new members and reappointment of some existing members on May 31. Wu said this morning that three of the applicants have submitted answers - and that Araujo has not yet sent an answer. At the time, she said, she asked if she could formally ask the applicants the question or if the mayor's office wanted to coordinate answers, and that the mayor's office said it would do so.
Wu said she asked administration officials on Monday "whether they were still intending to chase down the rest." She added, "they said yes, that several were busy over the summer, etc."
In addition to asking people several times yesterday to ask councilors in general and Wu in particular - a frustrated Araujo at one point said the delay "is costing taxpayers money," because the city has to pay to advertise each hearing that is deferred.
At one point, attorney John Pulgini had just started a statement on a proposed new building on Talbot Avenue in Dorchester when Araujo stopped him to remind him he could seek an "administrative deferral" because "this is not a fully constituted board."
Pulgini and his client went ahead with his presentation on why the project should be granted variances.
Just before the board voted on the proposal, she addressed all of the aides to city councilors in the room - all there to speak about projects in their districts - and asked them to "do whatever you can do to make sure make alternates are in place." The board then unanimously approved the Talbot Avenue proposal.
At least through the first couple of hours of hearings yesterday, nobody asked for a deferral based on the shortage of members. But one applicant who sought a deferral for other reasons would have been forced to because board member Craig Galvin recused himself from the hearing - on a proposal to build a nine-unit residential building on Minot Street in Dorchester - which would have left only four board members to hear the case.