AYER — After two hours of discussion on what type of development Ayer would prefers for the North Post, residents at the special workshop Tuesday gave MassDevelopment’s housing plans for the area a thumbs-down. Instead, they opted for exclusively commercial/light industrial development.
The recommendation would be given to the Devens Dispositions Executive Board (DDEB) for further negotiations with MassDevelopment, said Ayer Economic and Community Development Director Shaun Suhoski, who moderated the meeting.
However, Suhoski made it clear MassDevelopment wants a scenario that includes housing at the North Post, and repeatedly stated the funds needed to rehabilitate the site are more likely to be forthcoming if the town cooperates with the agency.
”The only thing I’m saying is, when your negotiating team tries to get all the things you want, there’s likely to be some pushback,” he said. “We have to recognize the big picture, and what we’re negotiating against.”
DDEB representative and Planning Board (PB) member Patricia Walsh, who was strongly for commercial/industrial development at the North Post, had a different view.
”I don’t see giving up quite so easily” she said. “Control of the North Post should not hinge on 150 houses there.”
The houses Walsh referred to were the ones in MassDevelopment’s preferred scenario, which would add 166 houses, 1.5 million square feet of commercial space, and 95 students to the local school system.
Instead, Walsh and others supported the option of 2.5 million square feet commercial/industrial, with no houses or students in the schools.
Walsh’s comment resonated with those who felt the North Post was a unique opportunity to regain ground on the town-wide ratio of commercial and residential properties for tax assessments. They have slipped from being roughly equal five years ago to over two-thirds percent residential in recent years, effectively putting more of the tax burden on residents.
In support of the mixed-use scenario, Suhoski said area employers desire a greater range of housing in the region. The mixed-use scenario would still be a clear net benefit for the tax base, and he said the North Post is beyond the town’s means to clean up without MassDevelopment.
”We have to think about the resources that have (been) brought to clean up that area,” said Suhoski. “Do you really think the town will pass a $20 million override (to do that)?”
The list of negotiating goals submitted by Suhoski included Ayer with jurisdiction over North Post, industrial development, McPherson Road upgrades, and infrastructure/environmental remediation covered by the state, federal sources or the developer. It was also suggested the town negotiate for ownership of 20 acres of playing fields at the airfield and the McPherson Well.
While those goals were accepted, there was major disagreement over what was considered giving in to MassDevelopment’s position.
Walsh raised another issue that resonated when she said upgrades to McPherson Road should not be part of the current negotiation; it should done separately and immediately.
Upgrades to McPherson Road were an assumption with all scenarios, Suhoski said.
MassDevelopment Senior Vice President Bill Burke verbally agreed the agency would do so, Selectman Paul Bresnahan said, and the town would insist on an ironclad agreement as part of the deal.
Suhoski said MassDevelopment committed to fund a second study on what it would cost to fix the crossing since 1995, to which selectman Frank Maxant spat, “Another study!” He said the idea that MassDevelopment should get anything further in return for upgrading McPherson Road is faulty.
”When you talk about MassDevelopment getting some extra benefits in return for fixing McPherson Road, your buying into their smoke and mirrors, they made the commitment to do that back in 1995,” he said. “We have to hold their feet to the fire and say they are reigning on that promise.”
There was some concern over whether MassDevelopment had committed to fix the crossing, but Maxant was not the only one who remembered that being part of the deal, and there was little sympathy from the floor to claims previously made from MassDevelopment’s consultants on how much more expensive those repairs would be now.
”There are a lot of things that have been done with the millions the state gave MassDevelopment that are not, in my opinion, as important as McPherson Road,” said Walsh. “They’re not giving us anything. This was promised a long time ago.”
In the end, it was Bresnahan who called for a hand vote to the question of whether Ayer would support a mixed-use development at North Post if it yielded a net benefit to the town tax base.
After only three people raised their hand in favor, Suhoski began recasting the question in terms of general objectives. Maxant then said Suhoski was obviously onboard with MassDevelopment’s plans, and Walsh called for an up-or-down vote on houses at the North Post.
The final vote in favor of commercial/industrial development prevailed 6 to 4, which brought a quip from DDEB representative Harry Zane.
”Ten people just decided for 7,000,” he said, though he softened that statement afterward, and said no final decision had been made.
Earlier in the meeting Walsh offered her own thought on why attendance was low.
”This is five nights before Christmas. Being here is an absolute horror for me,” she said. “Some people had to make choices.”