As a real estate lawyer specializing in permitting, zoning, and construction, Dick Seegel considered himself a natural to join Wellesley’s Zoning Board of Appeals, the quasi-judicial entity that interprets and enforces zoning bylaws. He put his name in to the Board of Selectmen for consideration, and was appointed back in 1999 after he was deemed to be fair and “not a radical” related to anything the ZBA might be considering.
Already retired as an attorney, Seegel stepped down from the ZBA at the end of June, and is spending his retirement playing bridge, reading, and more. He leaves behind a few regrets from his time with the ZBA, but takes away a lot of pride and education from his contributions to town government over the years.
Seegel, who moved to Wellesley in 1966, had already been very involved in town government before his ZBA appointment. So he was a known quantity. He’d been a member of the Advisory Committee, chairman of the Board of Public Works, and chairman of the Town Government Study Committee (well before the committee formed in 2014 led by Gig Babson).
Being part of the ZBA, which he chaired for most of his years on it, gave Seegel a chance to ply his expertise for the good of the town. He says the ZBA in Wellesley has come to be comprised of an architect to make recommendations, an engineer to ask the tough questions, and an attorney to make sure things go by the letter of the law. The attorney’s role is important in that ZBA decisions can be appealed to the Massachusetts superior court.
Not for the faint of heart
Being a ZBA member is not for the faint of heart, as plenty of the regular cases per year and a handful of larger projects, involve megabucks, residents’ homes and neighborhoods, and the livelihoods of contractors, architects, and lawyers. The ZBA also works with many other town boards and committees, and Seegel wishes relations with the Planning Department had been better than they were during his early years.
Dealing with a spate of 40B projects in recent years—with developers seeking opportunities to build in sometimes questionable locations in the name of helping Wellesley meet its threshold for affordable housing—proved to be the most unappealing part of being on the ZBA, Seegel says. The board found a number of these projects to be objectionable, but could only do so much to influence them under state law. He found most neighbors and town officials supportive of more affordable housing, but many of the projects lacked basic amenities for would-be residents and considerations of neighbors.
“We were really tough on applicants,” says Seegel, who earned a reputation for running an efficient, no-nonsense meeting. “Sometimes we’d be able to approve architectural changes and make projects more attractive, sometimes we could get them to change the mix of units. But the state prohibited us from making projects uneconomic. We had to be careful with that.”
While discussions could get testy at ZBA meetings, Seegel says he only received a few nastygrams over the years “saying what a jerk I was.” And he only had to call the cops on one attendee.
Wellesley’s current Board of Selectmen and Executive Director are among those who sing Seegel’s praises. BoS member Marjorie Freiman referenced Seegel’s “unparalleled knowledge” at a recent meeting, and Executive Director Meghan Jop touted Seegel’s ability “to look at every project based on that site and hold it to a higher standard” while walking a fine line between neighbors’ and developers’ needs.
Expect a more formal acknowledgement of Seegel’s contributions down the road.
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Seegel says he found it interesting that Wellesley put site plan approval in the hands of the ZBA except for Large House Reviews and this led to interesting cases. Among them was a Bates Elementary School addition process during which the ZBA heeded neighbors’ pleas to address untenable pick-up lines by adding an extra lane.
One downside of such cases is that they could be incredibly time consuming, with some plans topping 50 pages. So lots of homework for Seegel and his cohorts.
But working on big projects, including with Babson College, Dana Hall and Wellesley College, was among the more interesting and enjoyable aspects of the ZBA role. As was meeting so many people and seeing what they were doing with their homes. “99% of the projects were fine if we could do some tweaking. It was fun,” he says.
Seegel says the ZBA has tried to make itself “as friendly a board as we could… We didn’t want homeowners to have to bring an attorney to represent them, because we had the expertise and could guide them through the process.”
While Seegel and his family have lived at three different Wellesley addresses during their time in town, he’s never appeared before the Wellesley ZBA as a homeowner. He has, however, been before dozens of ZBAs across the state as a lawyer, and learned a lot about what works and doesn’t. Among his work was helping Nextel install cell towers. Some ZBAs were welcoming, and others “shredded me as much as they could,” he says.
In the end, Seegel’s Wellesley ZBA career came full circle. The last case he worked on was the 40R project on William Street in the same office park where his law office located. He has some concerns about the traffic jams this project could cause, but lauds the fact that it will bring Wellesley up to its required threshold on affordable housing.
Current and future ZBA members will be thankful for that.