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Meeting on Devens houses raises issues with density and openness


SHIRLEY — At least 25 Shirley residents attended the Planning Board meeting to view concept plans for the Shirley Village Growth area and the Environmental Business Zone.

The plans, provided by Susaki, Inc., were presented by MassDevelopment Senior Vice President Richard Montouri.

Worries expressed related to the density of housing proposed and the openness of the Devens disposition process.

The goal is to build 300 housing units over a period of 40 years. The number, Montouri said, has been reached through negotiations with stakeholders to plan for the optimum amount of housing for the area.

The plan was put together via input received at several public hearings held with various boards, including the Board of Selectmen.

”(It is) a plan that incorporates as many of the recommendations as possible,” Montouri said.

The number of houses planned was higher until Montouri heard from selectmen, but it was changed to help provide further financial assistance to the town, he said.

Residents and members of the board expressed concern with the density of an area near the middle school, where 30 condominium-style housing units are proposed over about 3.5 acres. Each building would be on .25 acre lots.

”The goal throughout Devens is to develop the housing with smart growth densities in mind,” Montouri said. The goal is to keep with guidelines under Chapter 40R and 40S, so the town will be eligible for state funding, he said.

The number of housing units is lower than the original number brought forward, said John Rounds. However, referring to the proposed 30 units, he said the number is a higher density than any other part of Shirley.

MassDevelopment is pushing the density and mandating a certain percentage of affordable housing, said Rounds. Affordable housing is OK, but he asked if that kind of density is acceptable.

”We (MassDevelopment) have not looked at Shirley Zoning bylaws,” Montouri said. “We are doing something that is different here. This will match or be better than anything that’s been done.”

Former Town Clerk Sylvia Shipton asked about providing jobs for the type of housing being proposed.

”We’re not ignoring the job creation aspect,” Montouri said. He referred to more than 400,000 square feet of commercial/industrial development, an amount increased after he received feedback at prior meetings that there was a concern.

”There is a housing shortage in this commonwealth,” Montouri said. People are leaving Massachusetts because of the high cost of housing, he said.

With this project, MassDevelopment plans to reduce housing costs and create jobs. Condominiums are a start, Montouri said.

Devens housing negotiations seems to have taken on a life of their own, said Heidi Ricci, a member of the Devens Disposition Executive Board (DDEB) Land Use and Open Space sub-committee.

”The process needed to be more public,” she said.

An open meeting was held with the Coordinating Committee, Montouri said, and MassDevelopment has been in front of the selectmen two or three times.

Discussions were held with selectmen on the side, said Ricci. There are only a few people guiding the recommendations.

Each community has representatives on the DDEB for stakeholders, Montouri said. The plans are a proposal he hopes will be finalized before a meeting with the board on Feb. 16.

Public meetings will be held in the spring, he said, and the proposal still has to be presented at a town meeting in November. After that, it will be subject to the ballot process.

The proposed development will happen over many years, not over two to three, he reminded those in attendance.

”We’ve been to the public hearings,” Montouri said. “We’ve heard the concerns, we’ve adjusted the plans.”

”There is no doubt that it is (MassDevelopment’s) intention to get a certain number of houses,” he said.

From the back of the room, Selectman Leonardo (Chip) Guercio stood up to address those in attendance.

”I want to turn the clock back to the beginning,” he said.

A 40-year life span was given by MassDevelopment, left open regarding what would be done with the final disposition, under the influence that Shirley would eventually get the land back.

Shirley had no jurisdiction, Guercio said, adding that the DDEB and other bodies proceeded without adhering to recommendations.

The feel in Harvard is that voting is difficult without knowing who would have jurisdiction, said Guercio.

”What we’re trying to do is get all of the communities comfortable with the disposition,” he said.

At the beginning of negotiations, the original housing number was close to 3,000 units for the towns, but the number of units has decreased to about 1,800.

”We’re working on getting people comfortable with a number and a density,” Guercio said. “This process is still a process.”

Originally, the number of units for Shirley was 350, but as a result of the negotiations, the number is now 300.

A more acceptable number of units might be 225 to 250, Guercio said. “We’re in the throes of this now.”

”The zoning we’re going to vote on is going to allow up to 300 houses,” he said. “Nobody, I guess, likes houses, but we need more houses in Massachusetts.”

”Maybe we’re not that far off,” he said.

The shift of housing density is not being well-received, Guercio said, but “I’m glad you’re all here tonight.”

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