DEVENS - The Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS) for the Devens area communities voted on Jan. 24 to support MassDevelopment's plans to push forward the development of Grant Road on Devens.
The Grant Road housing project will exhaust the balance of the housing allotment now permitted for the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ). With the decommissioning and sale of the former Fort Devens Army base lands to the state, the DREZ housing cap was set at 282 units.
MassDevelopment's Land Entitlement Director Ed Starzec told the JBOS that the state agency intends to post its request for interest (RFI) this spring with hopes of attracting one or more developers to build-out the 200- acre tract of residentially-zoned land.
"We're looking to take the temperature of the development market," said Starzec. The agency is in the midst of creating a "preferred concept plan to give developers a sense of what we think it might look like." However, "if someone has a better idea, we're eager to hear that," added Starzec.
"It's safe to say a majority of the units will be single family homes," said Starzec. The 1994 Devens Reuse Plan dictates that at approximately 25 percent of the DREZ housing stock "will be reserved for low and moderate income individuals and families, and/or special needs populations."
In terms of meeting that 25 percent affordability target, Starzec said Devens development is "in the 20-25 percent range now" with 156 units left to build before hitting the DREZ 282 unit cap.
Starzec said the RFI draft was to be completed by the end of January for internal review by MassDevelopment. Starzec said the agency then intends to have a series of community meetings in the three Devens towns - Ayer, Harvard and Shirley - "to brief them on this plan and to hear input. I can't guarantee it all will be acted up on, but we'll see what people think about it," said Starzec.
Community meetings will tentatively take place in the time frame of mid- to late- February or early March.
Starzec said the agency may also identify a "short list of development firms we'd like to continue talking to and then we'd solicit fee/cost proposals and go into more detail as we prepare to select one or more developers."
"One can come and take all 156 units," said Starzec. Or, "we'd also be interested in seeing 2-3 smaller, strong developers come in."
Starzec hedged to guess the time frame for the whole selection process year, "That may be premature to put something on that."
Devens Committee Chair Tom Kinch said the build out is "significant" because it nearly "doubles the size" of the existing Devens housing stock.
"Well, it won't all be built at once," said Starzec. "A builder won't build faster than they can sell." Perhaps Grant Road would be built out in phases, said Starzec.
Devens Committee member Phil Crosby was anxious to be able to provide input to the RFI process. Crosby said he opposes the Local Initiative Program (LIP) low-income housing tax credit program approach.
"I think it has serious structural flaws," said Crosby. "I'd want you to explore other affordable options."
"That question doesn't really have to wait till the draft RFI," said Starzec. "If you want to raise concerns before that, we'll always take emails and phone calls from anybody."
After the meeting, Crosby explained that his opposition to any LIP project is that there's no sunset provision for an owner of an affordable unit who suddenly comes into money.
"The day after you sign you can get a job with six figures or marry a millionaire and still have the property," said Crosby. "If you're going to have affordable housing, it should service people who are needy, not people who happen to manipulate their needs. People who are hard working deserve a good place to live and I want them in my community."
--JBOS VOTES TO SUPPORT PROJECT
Shirley JBOS representative Rico Cappucci said the Grant Road project "is a huge step." Cappucci said the JBOS's role is to "advise" MassDevelopment on its plans. "I want to establish that as part of the record."
Cappucci motioned "to support MassDevelopment in its quest to pursue this project at this time." Ayer selectman Gary Luca seconded the motion.
"So you're proposing the JBOS get behind it, stay abreast of it and offer our encouragement to continue?" asked Kinch.
"We're going to take our roles as advisers very seriously," said Cappucci. While specifics on the Grant Road build out have yet to be fleshed out, Cappucci said, "I want to go on the record that we'd like to support it at this time."
Harvard selectmen Chair Lucy Wallace was "concerned" with the JBOS vote when "there's not a lot there" in terms of information.
"I'm intrigued with the idea to offer to smaller developers rather than one," said Wallace. "It will make it look more like an organically grown community and a great addition to Devens."
"But I don't know what we're voting on," said Wallace. "Can we say we're happy to see it moving forward?"
Voting without further information from MassDevelopment is "sort of a blind trust," said Wallace.
But Wallace clarified that she was not present as a representative of the Harvard Board of Selectmen. "Harvard hasn't been participating so I probably wouldn't vote," said Wallace.
The Harvard Board of Selectmen advised the JBOS last summer that it would only participate in JBOS meetings when issues arise that affect the entire JBOS community. Wallace was there to watch a presentation made by the Harvard selectmen's Devens Economic Advisory Team (DEAT).
DEAT is studying the economic pros and cons of Harvard resuming governmental jurisdiction of its historical town bounds that underlie 60 percent of the DREZ. The Grant Road housing project lies within the historically-Harvard controlled section of the DREZ.
"The spirit of the vote is to welcome the feedback, the introduction, the information, the initiative, to encourage it and to request that we stay abreast of it because of the impact on Devens and all of the communities," said Kinch.
Kinch, Cappucci and Luca voted 3-0 to support the Grant Road project progress as presented.
MassDevelopment Executive Vice President for Devens Operations George Ramirez briefed the JBOS regarding progress on the Barnum Road regional E911 dispatch center which is under construction. "The building is almost finished," said Ramirez. The center is to open on July 1 for shared dispatching services for Devens, Harvard, Lancaster and Lunenburg.
Ramirez said that Nathan Kenney has been hired to serve as the E911 Executive Director. Kenney was previously the director of the Rutland Regional Emergency Communications Center.
The JBOS also discussed holding a springtime meeting with the MassDevelopment Board of Directors. Last fall, the JBOS obtained a legal opinion which advised that the JBOS is to meet annually with the state agency. Over the years, that meeting has morphed instead into a Q&A session following the board's annual trek to Devens in November for the board's monthly regular business meeting.
The next JBOS meeting is Feb. 28 at 6 p.m. at 33 Andrews Parkway on Devens.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.