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Winners & losers

‘They approve everything, unless you’re someone they don’t like’

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / August 23, 2009

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From major downtown developments to home building projects on quiet side streets, many builders believe their plans rise and fall on their relationships with Mayor Thomas M. Menino. This is a tale of two small construction projects that neighbors tried to block. The house that rose was built by a family with ties to the mayor - and it still stands, despite court orders to tear it down. The house that fell, by city order, was opposed by a powerful Menino ally. The losers in each neighborhood took away the same message. “They approve everything,’’ said Dorchester resident Yvonne Ruggles, “unless you’re someone they don’t like.’’

Dorchester home rises before judge rules

On Dorchester’s Melville Avenue, a broad street of sprawling Victorian homes, lifelong resident Jacqueline O’Flaherty wanted to build a single-family home beside her duplex in 2001.

O’Flaherty, a friend of the mayor’s daughter, needed a variance. Her aunt, Susan Tracy, a former state representative and Menino fund-raiser, represented her before the Zoning Board of Appeals, arguing successfully that she shouldn’t be blocked from building because her lot was 4 feet too narrow.

Ruggles sued in Superior Court, saying the property, under zoning rules, was too small.

But the city issued building permits and the O’Flahertys quickly built the house. By the time a judge ordered the family to tear it down, they’d been living there for more than three months.

The O’Flahertys, who did not respond to interview requests, lost on appeal but are still fighting in court to keep the house. And instead of adhering to its own zoning code, the city began trying to rewrite it to help the family.

When asked about the case, Menino defended the family’s character and intentions.

“The O’Flahertys are a hard-working family in Dorchester who built it on their own property,’’ Menino said. “There was no issue of a hindrance to anybody else’s property.’’

City officials shut down West Roxbury project

On Roslindale’s modest Catherine Street, three West Roxbury real estate agents wanted to build a two-family townhouse in 2005.

Because their plans seemed to meet local zoning, they easily got a building permit. But construction was soon halted by next-door neighbor Janice Loux, the head of the local hotel workers’ union and a powerful ally of the mayor. Loux contended that the developers were encroaching on her land.

Instead of challenging the project in court, as is customary, Loux went to City Hall, where, the developers say, she got the benefit of every doubt.

“The way I look at it was, she holds the political weight,’’ said one of the developers, Michael Keane. “She brings so many votes to the table. She said jump and they said, how high?’’

The Zoning Board of Appeals heard Loux’s challenge of the building permit, even though it stemmed from a boundary dispute usually handled by the courts.

“This should not be here,’’ Robert Shortsleeve, acting chairman, said at a 2005 hearing.

Because the board doesn’t have the authority to sort out personal property disputes, the members sought advice from the city law department. In a confidential memo, city lawyers sided with Loux and, six months later, the Zoning Board revoked the permit.

Two years later, when the developers revised their plans and started work again, Loux got that shut down, too, by challenging other zoning standards on the opposite side of the house.

Loux said she never got any special treatment, though she acknowledged turning for help to her friend Michael Kineavy, the mayor’s policy chief. She said Kineavy told her she had to follow the process like anybody else.

“I am completely confident that we presented our case and prevailed on the facts,’’ she said.

Menino said that the city followed “the letter of the law’’ and that he had never talked to Loux about her case.

“I’m the mayor of Boston,’’ he said. “I try to make this work for all our people, not just some of our people.’’

For two years, the developers gave up. They let the half-built townhouse languish. A city inspector ordered it torn down.

Then in April, Keane’s development partner, Stephen A. Morris, reached out for help. After all, he, too, was a Menino supporter, he noted in an e-mail message to Kineavy, accusing the city of skewing the process to help a friend of the mayor.

“At this point we question whether we can continue our support,’’ Morris wrote. “We are not looking for favors, but we are looking for the City to stop harming us.’’

In July, the developers had to tear down the townhouse. Keane estimates the loss at more than $300,000. He still hopes to build, however, and is willing to scale back plans by the distance the city has decided, after four years, his plans erred: 6 inches.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.