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Zoning official works as developer's lawyer

Page full of 3 -- The chairman of Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeal has been working as a lawyer for a housing developer whose business has flourished with the help of repeated board approval to override Boston’s zoning laws.

For nearly five years, Joseph D. Feaster Jr. has represented developer Joseph LaRosa, who has built scores of homes in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, often over the objections of neighbors who say the houses are cheaply constructed and out of character with the surrounding area.

Feaster said he abstains from board votes involving LaRosa projects, saying he helps the developer buy land and represents him at neighborhood meetings to air concerns over his building projects. Another lawyer from the six-person firm Feaster works for, McKenzie & Associates, appears at zoning board meetings on LaRosa's behalf, he said.

State ethics law prohibits city employees from working as "agent or attorney" for anyone on matters in which the city has an interest. Recusing themselves from votes on such matters does not exempt city board members from the law, according to a 1996 ethics commission ruling. "A regular municipal board member may not avoid official responsibility for a matter by abstaining from participation in the matter as a board member," the ruling states.

In a telephone interview with the Globe, Feaster said he never sought an opinion from the ethics commission. He declined to discuss the compensation he receives from LaRosa, saying only that the developer pays him "enough."

Meanwhile, Feaster may be violating a requirement that board members live in the city. Though he lists a Roxbury address on city voting and payroll records, he owns a 3,100-square-foot home in suburban Stoughton, where his cars are registered and he is listed on the town's resident list. A Roxbury neighbor who asked not to be named said Feaster moved out of the city when he bought the Stoughton house in 1998.

"I live in Roxbury and I live in Stoughton," said Feaster, adding: "Joe Kennedy has two houses." Former US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, a Brighton resident, has a summer home in Hyannis Port. Feaster is one of two zoning board members chosen specifically to represent the interests of Boston's neighborhoods. The legislation that created the city's zoning code mandates that all members be Boston residents.

Another board member said that Feaster has never advocated on behalf of LaRosa at board meetings, either publicly or privately. "The only thing I know is that when Mr. LaRosa comes before our board Joe Feaster recuses himself," said board member Angelo Buonoparne, adding that he was unaware Feaster has been LaRosa's lawyer.

"He's probably the best chairman the zoning board has ever had. He does a fantastic job," Buonoparne said. "No one understands zoning law or building codes better than he."

Feaster, 54, is a longtime political ally of Mayor Menino. A former president of the Boston NAACP, he was one of the first minority leaders to support Menino's mayoral candidacy in 1993. Soon after taking office, Menino appointed Feaster to the zoning board, the powerful panel whose role is to protect neighborhoods from developments that don't fit in. Developers seeking building permits for projects that violate city zoning must seek a variance -- or, often, multiple variances from the zoning board.

Feaster said he has done nothing to help LaRosa win approvals from the board. Still, city records show that in the time Feaster has been representing him, LaRosa has had a strong record of success. Since late 1999, LaRosa has secured zoning board variances for 42 projects. He was turned down once during that period, according to city records. He withdrew three appeals for variances.

One example of a LaRosa project is on Woodrow Avenue in Mattapan, where he was given permission in 2000 to build a two-family home on a 2,400-square-foot lot. By zoning code standards the lot should have been at least 5,000 square feet. The lot also lacked adequate yard space and open space, according to Inspectional Services Department records.

Two weeks ago, LaRosa won approval to build a two-family house in Roxbury that required seven variances from the zoning code. The lot is 3,738 square feet. The zoning code requires lots in that area to be 5,000 square feet for building to proceed. Neighbors, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services opposed it.

"LaRosa goes buying up all the land he can and sticks these little houses that look like shacks stacked against each other and calls them homes," said Julio Henriquez, a board member of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which builds affordable housing in Dorchester and Roxbury. "He walks away with a big profit, leaving the community without style or semblance of order. No matter what we say, this guy [LaRosa] ignores us. Everything goes through."

LaRosa, 38, of Walpole, declined several requests for interviews. But Feaster defended LaRosa's building record, dismissing complaints from neighbors and community groups as the kind of criticism that all developers receive.

"There are persons who are quite pleased" with LaRosa's homes, Feaster said. "There are those who like them and those that don't. That's normal. It's normal for some people to like things and others not to. Some people like Colonials and others like ranches. I'm not aware of any project around the city that doesn't have an issue, including putting on back porches. Ask any community."

The developer originally ran a landscaping business, and in the 1990s started renovating rundown properties for resale. By the late 1990s, he expanded into new home construction, often buying small parcels of land and combining them to form lots for homes.

In 1999, LaRosa ran into problems with the city's Inspectional Services Department, which received complaints from neighbors of a Dorchester worksite who alleged that he didn't have proper permits and damaged their property. The department eventually denied LaRosa a building permit. LaRosa "has engaged in a consistent pattern of misconduct on certain properties and has been repeatedly cited by ISD for violating regulations," the city said in response to a suit brought by LaRosa, alleging that ISD had unfairly denied him the permit.

The developer hired Feaster that year. That was also when La-osa more frequently needed zoning board help. As a homebuilder attempting to develop lots that often didn't meet the zoning code's size or density standards, LaRosa had to appeal to the zoning board.

Whether or not Feaster's work for LaRosa has helped the developer win approval, he is widely perceived among neighborhood activists as the reason that LaRosa receives permission from the board to build.

"A number of people went to the zoning board," Gary Collins, a Mattapan activist, said of a project LaRosa proposed on Alabama Street in 2003. "They all objected. The lot was just too small. The zoning board just ignored the neighbors and gave the variance. We were upset and had to hire a lawyer to block it. His [LaRosa's] attorney is on the board of appeal. When I brought that up to our lawyer, he said, `That's why it went through.' "

Neighbors ultimately sued to halt the project. The suit is pending, and LaRosa has not moved ahead with construction.

LaRosa has told some neighborhood groups recently that he wants to improve relations with them. In recent weeks, he has offered concessions to at least two neighborhood groups who opposed his building plans. Still, some community activists say the developer's projects are setting back efforts to improve once-blighted parts of the city.

And they say Feaster is betraying Boston's neighborhoods by representing him. "We don't want a ghetto, but a neighborhood," said David Lopes, head of the Wellington Hill Neighborhood Association. "We don't want housing that will fall apart in 10 years."

Globe correspondent Joaquim A. Encarnacao contributed to this story. 

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