AYER -- Fault lines were obvious at a meeting of the Joint Boards of Selectmen when representatives of the three member towns and Devens residents could not agree on whether portions of the former military base were even part of Shirley, Harvard or Ayer.
Devens must be allowed to continue to grow as a residential and business community, insisted Devens Committee representative Tom Kinch.
Kinch argued that Devens is not part of any of the three towns and that MassDevelopment, the agency charged by the state to oversee its transition from military base to civilian entity, is inextricably intertwined with its governance.
"I'm not trying to discourage you," Kinch concluded, referring to the latest proposal being floated by the JBOS for the ultimate disposition of Devens when MassDev's mandate expires in 2033.
"In the world I live in, government is elected and representative," replied Harvard Selectman Leo Blair, sponsor of the proposed overlay district. He called being governed by a corporate entity "a very odd situation."
The sides met in Ayer Town Hall on Nov. 14 for open discussions about a plan to create an overlay district out of the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ) in which the three towns the former base was originally carved from would hold joint jurisdiction and responsibility.
The overlay district is intended to bridge the transition period between control by MassDev and 2033, when the entity's mandate expires and at which point a permanent solution would be implemented.
According to Blair, the core principle of the proposal is ultimately for the three towns concerned to retain control over Devens and in the meantime to ease competition between them over how the area is governed.
Blair said approval of the overlay district plan would herald a "common approach" to questions dealing with Devens by all the towns. He proposed that a nonbinding referendum vote on the plan be held at town meetings scheduled for the spring.
If residents approve the plan, JBOS could get to work on the details and a final draft that would again be submitted to the people for approval.
But it was Kinch's contention that working out the details ought to come first, before a nonbinding vote, particularly the role of MassDev in the governance of Devens.
"There are some fundamental issues that have to be addressed," said Kinch identifying the development and governance of Devens as two of them, which was the reason that no previously proposed solution to the problem ever moved forward, said Blair, because people wanted to see all the answers before doing anything.
"The devil will be in the details," admitted Blair. "But until I have some sense of where we're going, I don't know what questions to ask."
Blair reminded fellow board members that other ways were tried in the past without success. If they cannog agree on a solution, the issue will be taken out of their hands by the Legislature in 2033.
Harvard Selectman Stu Sklar noted that no matter what route was chosen, it will be a long process getting to approval.
Kinch accepted that the overlay district scheme was a good idea and that Devens residents realize that something needs to be done. Nevertheless, he worries that the towns could not handle such things as emergency services and that, in any case, the plan would need to be vetted by MassDev.
Speaking for MassDevelopment, executive vice president George Ramirez said his organization is "not going anywhere" and that the law gives MassDev. the right to govern and develop Devens till at least 2033.
"All I want to know is if people are interested in this," said Blair.
The time is now, continued Blair, to begin figuring out how services would be handled by the towns within a Devens overlay district, which up to that moment, had been handled in a "backwards" manner.
"I'm talking about easing into something that's going to happen eventually," said Blair. "I just think it's time for us to get in this game."
No decision was reached at the Nov. 14 meeting with discussion on the topic expected to continue on Dec. 19, when the JBOS next convenes.