Codman hearing focuses on as-of-right zoning

A well-attended city council hearing on Tuesday evening at the Great Hall in Codman Square began to parse the intricacies of as-of-right development, sparked by an outcry over a proposed Popeyes restaurant on Washington Street that has been built-out over community objections.

Locals found that Popeyes was building the outlet when it suddenly began construction in December. This was a shock, as forceful objection to the initial request to build a takeout restaurant lead the Zoning Board of Appeal to deny it with prejudice. But the restaurant team tweaked their permit to technically accommodate the allowable use of a sit-down restaurant, promising less than 75 percent of its profits would be from takeout orders.

Since the new version of the project was constructed as-of-right, there was no community notification process nor public input period. Its application for a common victualler license has since been denied, so the finished building is unable to open.

After a Reporter article cataloguing the community and city opposition to the project, City Council President and District 4 Councillor Andrea Campbell called for Tuesday’s hearing, also attended by City Councillor At-Large Michelle Wu and District 7 Councillor Kim Janey. A working session has not yet been scheduled.

Further reading: Campbell calls for new regulations to prevent more fast-food outlets from just popping up

Inspectional Services Department (ISD) Commissioner William Christopher and Jeff Hampton, senior zoning planner for the Boston Planning and Development Agency and executive secretary of the Boston Zoning Commission, began the hearing by breaking down the normal permitting process and how as-of-right development differs.

For many buildings, developers ask that something be built that either does not match the type of allowed zoning -- putting a residential project in a formerly industrial space, for instance -- or the structure of the building does not align with zoning.

This kicks off a process of ISD review, community input, review by the Zoning Board of Appeal, and other approvals depending on the type of project.

“What an as-of-right project means is basically that the project is not asking for zoning relief or building code relief,” Christopher said.

ISD is charged with enforcing the building code, the zoning code, and the sanitary code. These are precise measures of whether something is allowed or not allowed by the code, Christopher explained.

“When a project comes into ISD, we don’t have an opinion on the project,” he said. “We analyze it against those three codes to see if it meets the requirements If the project meets all of the requirements, and I mean all of them, then the project is considered as-of-right.”

Inspectors would then give the developers a permit and the project could go forward without any additional notifications.

Notifications were a major topic of discussion at the hearing. Residents asked for a clearer notification process about new construction, especially if it is a project that was previously rejected in an earlier form.