SHIRLEY -- A home-rule petition proposed by former Ayer selectman Frank Maxant was up for discussion at the Joint Boards of Selectmen meeting last Thursday night.
Harvard Selectman Leo Blair opened the topic by saying he was skeptical but intrigued by Maxant's idea.
The petition would restore municipal authority of the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone to the original towns of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley. The towns could submit their own petitions concerning their own jurisdiction either separately or as a whole.
Maxant said the petition would not change anything except municipal jurisdiction. MassDevelopment would no longer be receiving tax revenue but would also no longer be providing municipal services, he said.
"We would be in a position that the towns have been familiar with since the formation of the towns," he said.
The petition would create a "confluence of interest," Maxant argued, and towns would also not have to hold "super town meetings" for such issues as zoning changes -- an issue currently under discussion as MassDevelopment has suggested building senior housing in the Shirley Village Growth District.
Richard Bernklow of the Devens Committee argued that the towns already accepted Chapter 498, the legislation that set up the current situation at Devens.
"(Chapter) 498 has a mechanism on how to deal with all this stuff, and you want to dump it in the middle," he said. "I don't understand why.
Maxant argued that the three towns were "hoodwinked" into accepting the legislation and were rushed to judgment with no chance to understand how much the legislation was distorted in Boston.
But Bernklow persisted.
"If the majority of the people voted for it, they were all hoodwinked?" he asked.
Blair eventually interrupted the discussion to prevent it from turning into an argument. He then pointed out that the plan would require the dismantling of a lot of infrastructure, including the fire and public-works departments.
"There's a lot of human beings employed and involved in that, and if, suddenly, jurisdiction changed to a town or towns -- I don't understand how you can shut that off like flicking a switch," he said.
Maxant argued that there would not be a lot of people who would lose jobs because there would not be a lot of necessary services disappearing.
Blair said he would need to digest the whole idea and come back with more informed questions. But he warned that it could be difficult for the attorney general to sign off on the petition because of its unknown consequences.
Shirley selectman David Swain also voiced concern.
"When you do a home-rule petition you really need a lot of united support from everybody involved," he said. "I think one of the key things is, what's MassDevelopment thinking?"
The board expressed a desire for more information on the proposed senior housing in the Shirley Village Growth District. The project would build housing units on land owned by MassDevelopment but in the traditional boundaries of Shirley.
The proposal requires a zoning change to allow for residential use of the plot, a request that has to pass at a super town meeting of all three towns. The development would also require a change in the housing cap for Devens.
Blair suggested conducting a survey of the towns to ask residents what they think of the idea.
"If that's favorable, and I think it would be favorable, I think the next steps become easier," he said. "If you have a plan already done and everything there, people sort of feel like they weren't part of the process. You're coming to them too late in the game."
Payment for such planning could come from the JBOS fund, currently set at about $32,000. The board reviewed a draft letter to MassDevelopment to ask for $30,000 in more funding to properly carry out the 1994 Memorandum of Understanding that created the JBOS.
Blair argued that the board is going to need some professional advice on the Shirley development that will cost money. He suggested taking the request back to the individual boards to ask if the money is worth asking for and if it is the right amount.
But Bernklow asked about the idea of the towns contributing money to fund JBOS for a while.
Blair said most of the towns' finance committees would probably see wisdom in that idea, but it would probably take almost a year.
"I'm really interested in actually making some progress on all this stuff in the next several months," he said, "which would mean that we would probably blow through a good chunk of what we have left.'