DEVENS — After 16 months of negotiations, the Devens Disposition Executive Board (DDEB) has endorsed a proposal outlining the future of this former military base.
Under the proposal, the core of Devens would become a new town, certain outlying portions would return to their host communities and the residential development cap of 282 housing units at Devens would be lifted, allowing MassDevelopment to pursue its goal of 1,800 housing units.
As a first step toward a November ballot question, DDEB members will bring the proposal to their constituents and return with responses by Feb. 16.
Over the past year, negotiations have advanced in several distinct phases. They ultimately led to a compromise that five out of six Devens stakeholders — the three host towns (Ayer, Harvard and Shirley), Devens residents, MassDevelopment and Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC) — could agree to.
Harvard and Barnum Road
The question of what Harvard would receive was the last great unknown. The proposal unveiled two weeks ago included provisions for the town to receive jurisdiction over the Barnum Road commercial strip between Carlton Circle and the railroad overpass.
The negotiations were spearheaded by Harvard Selectman William Marinelli, who said the main focus was reaching an agreement that Harvard voters will endorse. By his account, the proposal is preferable to ceding the majority of Devens back to Harvard — a scenario that would have entailed the town adding more than 1,000 new housing units.
With MassDevelopment holding firm on those figures — which represent a substantial increase over Harvard’s current total housing stock of 2,225 units — Marinelli said it wasn’t a stretch to imagine the latter scenario going down handily at town meeting or at the polls. He was among those who agreed the new proposal is better.
”Some people may be disappointed Devens is not coming back, but there are rational reasons for going in the direction we’re going,” he said. “I think a lot of people, myself included, will be happy to have Devens out of the focus of attention so we can get back to business in the towns.”
He expects that voters will be receptive to Harvard taking jurisdiction at Barnum.
”It seems that it provides us with some revenues with a minimum of liability and very little long-term risk,” he said.
DDEB Chairman William Marshall cautioned that the proposal is more a statement of what the parties involved with Devens’ future would like if Devens becomes a town than it is the board’s set-in-stone declaration of intent. He acknowledged there had been a lot of negotiation in recent months, with MassDevelopment and Devens residents on one side and the towns on the other.
Assuming the resulting proposal is adopted by all stakeholders, he said he expects closer examination of its long-term viability.
”If the answer is yes, it seems they’ve reached an agreement,” he said. “I think MassDevelopment and the Devens citizens have worked very hard to accommodate the desires of the community, in return for supporting Devens as a town.”
He noted that Ayer has reserved the right to review and possibly amend the agreement, using that to underscore his stance that the proposal is not a reality until it passes several more steps, most notably the popular vote this fall.
”It’s still subject to change,” he said. “I just want to emphasize it’s an agreement that, if Devens becomes a town, it’s acceptable to everyone.”
He credited Marinelli for providing a clear timeline for the process, saying the disposition question could stall for years if the approach is to analyze everything in-depth. Further corrective measures can be taken in the future, if needed, he said.
The decision that Harvard gets Barnum Road has been termed a reversal by some accounts.
In recent months, it was widely suspected that Harvard wanted Salerno Circle, but that scenario didn’t mesh with MassDevelopment’s housing plans. That brought Barnum Road to the forefront. Devens residents, and perhaps MassDevelopment, were resistant to giving up tax revenue from Barnum Road’s commercial development.
In December, the Devens Committee and Harvard selectmen took opposing views, but last week there was an abrupt turnaround. Two of three Harvard delegates agreed to the plan and the 14-person DDEB approved it in a 12-2 vote.
Before issues with Harvard were resolved, the question was housing numbers at the core of Devens. Last spring, MassDevelopment said it wanted 2,300 units at the base. But Devens residents wanted 600 and Harvard wanted 800, depending on which way jurisdiction went.
That disparity led to the discussion on housing numbers, with Harvard holding firm on the lower number and MassDevelopment maintaining that it would push for one target number, regardless of how disposition goes, according to Marinelli.
Evenutally a compromise was reached between the Devens residents and MassDevelopment, which agreed to 1,300 units in the core if Devens becomes a town. In return, the Devens residents received support in their stance of wanting of becomming a serperate municipality.
Devens and incorporation
For much of the past year. Devens Committee Chairman Michael Boucher and the other four members of the Devens Committee have advocated a new town at Devens.
”Only if it makes sense,” he has said.
A major consideration at Devens is financial sustainability as a town. That status has been ensured through 2015 by MassDevelopment, Boucher said. The new town would be chartered by 2010 and be complete by 2015, which was a requirement from the residents.
”That’s all we’re really asking for as residents,” he said. “We want to come out of the starting block with a high probability of success.”
Throughout the negotiations, MassDevelopment has pushed for more housing. MassDevelopment Chief of Operations Bill Burke said the agency and commonwealth call increased regional housing vital to continued economic growth and the latest Devens proposal is the best way to facilitate that.
”What we’re about is economic development,” he said. “We believe that the housing number we have is best for us, the region and the commonwealth. The numbers are out there. People are leaving the commonwealth because they can’t afford to live and work here.”
With the commonwealth already invested substantially in Devens, the state wants to know what the long-term future of its investment will be, he said.
Ayer and North Post; Shirley and everything west of the Nashua
Earlier in the year, Ayer said it wanted North Post regardless of disposition. Shirley said the same for everything west of the Nashua River.
This has led to officials mapping out future development of those areas with MassDevelopment, the landowner, to determine what will go there after the disposition vote.
Ayer Selectman Paul Bresnahan said his town was the only stakeholder that voted to take back its portion of Devens. But the town wants jurisdiction at the airfield if Devens becomes a town.
The new proposal calls for just that, but some potential issues have been identified and the selectmen have scheduled a public forum on the North Post for Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. Chief among the issues are Ayer’s long-standing position that MacPherson Road should be upgraded to divert traffic from downtown.
Also, there’s the more controversial question of whether there should be mixed-use development at the airfield or strictly commercial/industrial. With the town having over 600 units of housing already permitted, there’s significant sentiment against taking on another 200. The issue is likely to play out at the upcoming forum.
Across the Nashua River, Shirley is the only town to maintain throughout that it wants all of its territory back regardless of disposition. Shirley reached that agreement with MassDevelopment and Devens residents fairly early.
Even so, there have been local outreach efforts to keep voters informed about the option that may well be on the ballot, said Shirley town administrator Kyle Keady. Shirley recently hosted a public forum with representatives of MassDevelopment to discuss their plans for portions of Devens west of the Nashua River, he said. They await response from MassDevelopment on several suggestions. Another public forum will be held when that occurs.
”We’re going to continue to keep it as open a process as possible,” he said. “We just want to move forward.”
Shirley is listed as taking 300 housing units. BOS Chairman Leonardo “Chip” Guercio said the housing would be mixed, and not a financial burden on the school system.
While the process of determining Devens’ future is long from over, a definitive vote on the matter is scheduled for this fall.