Boston neighborhood associations zoning

Local Groups Wield Much Power Over Real Estate Permits & Projects

If you have ever had to deal with zoning or permitting in the City of Boston, you have probably come across local neighborhood “civic associations” in which the fate of your project or permit may unwittingly rest. There is the Beacon Hill Civic Association, the Allston Civic Association, and the St. Marks Area Civic Association (Dorchester), to name a few.  Each neighborhood or district has them. They are constituted by various neighborhood activists, watch-dogs, and concerned residents, etc. Many board members go back decades and some groups unfortunately lack younger members representing the new generation of city dwellers.

You will rarely find mention of these groups in the Boston Zoning Code, however, their influence looms large. When you file for a Boston variance or special permit or propose a new project in Boston, the City or BRA will tell you that you must first present your application or project before whatever local civic association has “jurisdiction” over the neighborhood. These groups sit almost as a second zoning board of appeals, except without any rules, regulations or guidelines as to what they may or may not “approve” or “deny.” To their credit, the associations typically have a good sense as to what’s appropriate for the neighborhood and these folks care deeply about their areas. But some members are outwardly hostile to new development and some are even obsessed with conspiracy theories of what developers have planned for their neighborhoods.

A negative review of your project at the local civic association meeting can make your application “dead on arrival” at the Zoning Commission or other licensing board. At the board meeting, the board members will always ask whether the local association are in support or opposition to the project. Only rarely will the board approve a project without the civic association’s full support – and that only occurs if the local pols or Mayor’s Office are in support. As with most real estate issues in the City of Boston, savvy politicking plays a large role.

I’m interested to hear if our readers have had experience with any of these local civic associations, good or bad?  Are they a good/bad thing? Should there be a set of rules or regulations governing how they consider projects?


Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate attorney who has handled numerous special permit, variance and permitting applications in the City of Boston.