HARVARD — It was 2B or not 2B all over again at the Town Hall this week.
After a well-attended public hearing and a substantive debate afterward, the selectmen were left in a quandary over whether they would endorse the 2B scenario for Devens’ disposition as requested by the Devens Disposition Executive Board.
The disposition board has asked the six Devens stakeholders to consider the proposal and give it a thumbs up or down by Feb. 16. Along with Harvard, stakeholders include Ayer, Shirley, the Devens Enterprise Commission, Devens residents and MassDevelopment.
The 2B proposal proffers one of two main scenarios the board came up with for Devens’ disposition. The first scenario calls for returning Devens to the three towns it came from. The second option envisions a new town.
If 2B passes muster with at least five of the six stakeholders, the disposition would move forward on the town-building track, eventually leading to draft legislation. The new legislation would nullify the reuse plan adopted by the three towns and replace Chapter 498, a state law that has governed Devens since the base was decommissioned a decade ago.
Selectmen Chairman William Marinelli has served on the disposition board since its formation. He prepared a schematic to describe the process starting with the stakeholders’ vote, presumably by Feb. 16, to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that describes the proposed 2B agreement in detail that will provide the basis for legislation. The MOU would go back to stakeholders for endorsement by April 6. It then morphs to a revised reuse plan and draft legislation. The report would be drafted by Sasaki Associates and MassDevelopment, and reviewed by the disposition board legal staff. Public hearings would then be held, with another stakeholder endorsement slated for July.
From there the proposal segues to a ballot question in August, followed by town meetings in October and a vote on the ballot question at the November 2006 election. The target date for submitting proposed legislation to state lawmakers is December 2006.
Although only scenario 2B is up for consideration, a few of the 40 or so people in attendance seemed interested in exploring another possibility, 1A, which would return Devens land to the towns. Two selectmen, Robert Eubank and Lucy Wallace, agreed.
Meanwhile, board members Randall Dean, Scott Kimball and Marinelli spoke for framing the motion they would vote on in terms of 2B, as the disposition board requested, if only for the sake of momentum.
”I don’t care which option we vote on 1A, 2B or 11F I just want this process to move forward,” said Dean.
Kimball agreed, arguing that there had been time and opportunity for residents to educate themselves on Devens issues. It’s time for the selectmen to step up and be leaders as they were elected to be, he said.
Wallace disagreed, preferring to wait, educate the public on the issue and vote after residents have a clear picture of options and impacts.
”Devens takes up 20 percent of Harvard’s land area and Harvard is 60 percent of theirs,” she said. Wallace wants to present both scenarios to the public and let them decide.
Robert Eubank felt strongly that Harvard’s best bet is to get its land back. He reminded Marinelli that he had once stood on similar ground.
Eubank read a vintage letter to the editor the chairman sent to the Harvard Hillside in response to an editorial in which Marinelli advised against agreeing just to get along with MassDevelopment. It seemed to support the idea that Harvard would be better off taking back its Devens land.
Marinelli said he no longer believes it is politically possible. Stakeholders who don’t support 2B now will be out of the decision-making loop. He thinks MassDevelopment wants Devens to be a town no matter what and will draft legislation even if the towns don’t support it.
Sharon McCarthy, of East Bare Hill Road, wanted to know what the rush was about. “Why are we being asked to make such a substantial decision in such a short time?” she asked.
Later in the meeting, she quoted U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who said the duty of public officials was to inform the public so they can make decisions, not to make the public’s decisions for them. “Without information how can we do that?” she asked.
William Ashe, a former selectman and longtime Planning Board member who has been intensely involved with open space issues at Devens and serves on the Restoration Advisory Board, cautioned against trusting MassDevelopment to keep its promises, even when they are in writing.
Ashe harked back to Chapter 498 of the Act of 1993 to re-frame the debate. The law states that the enterprise commission, selectmen and MassDevelopment shall initiate a study regarding the permanent governance of Devens by July 2030.
Of course, he said that also implied it could happen earlier, but a certain level of development was assumed first. In his view, Devens has not reached that point yet, and with so many complex issues such as contaminated soil to resolve, it is risky to rush the process.
Dr. Jeffrey Harris, of Whitney Road, adamantly opposed voting on 2B at this time and called for time, education and effort before deciding on the Devens issue.
”This is the most serious thing Harvard has faced the decision will affect us forever,” he said. “We are being stampeded into this.”
One resident who is relatively new to the town, said his objection to the 2B scenario as presented is that it calls for sharing recreational resources with Devens. In his view, welcoming scores of Devens families at Bare Hill Pond’s small beach would destroy the community character that he and his family have come to greatly appreciate.
Others pointed out that a revised 1A scenario would not necessarily mean the full housing — 1,800 homes over the next 20 years — that MassDevelopment envisions, 1,200 of which would be in Harvard.
Wallace argued that a smaller figure such as 600 houses was more likely if Harvard takes back jurisdiction. In that case the time frame for development would no longer be up to the state agency to dictate.
Discussion and debate waxed and waned, often straying from the main topic that Marinelli wanted the hearing to focus on, which was whether the 2B scenario would be endorsed by the board. He did, however, respond to the numbers discussion by painting a picture of burgeoning population figures in a future Harvard/Devens in which new schools would have to be built. In this scenario, growth is a given, changes inevitable and the town’s prized rural character would be lost.
More than one person noted the recent move to locate a 750,000-square-foot Bristol-Meyers Squibb facility at Devens as an example of how Harvard could benefit from industrial development if the town gets jurisdiction back. If not, and the company builds at Devens, Harvard’s viewshed will be affected, but the town won’t get any tax revenue, they pointed out. Nor would Harvard bylaws apply to another town.
The socalled Hummingbird site is already marred by other structures, said Eubank, but future plants could be situated elsewhere, and Harvard would have no input if Devens becomes a town.
Marinelli said he envisioned deed restrictions in the legislation aimed at aligning Harvard bylaws with Devens development.
Some seemed more leery of MassDevelopment than of how Devens, as a town or as Harvard land, would impact the town, urging caution and care in the disposition process. Marge Darby is one such person.
”Information is lacking to vote on any of these scenarios,” she said.
For example, she wanted to know the assessed value of the land that Harvard would give up or acquire.
”Is there a mechanism to negotiate compensation?” she asked.
After closing the public hearing at 10:15, the board deliberated before framing a motion. While Kimball and Marinelli were ready to endorse 2B as requested, Eubank and Wallace wanted to wait.
In the end, two motions were made and voted on. One aligned with the endorsement the board had been asked to make, but did not constitute a blanket acceptance of 2B. The other was a “yes, but” caveat aimed at addressing opposing views and providing an alternative avenue to 2B. This would be done by exploring the other Devens disposition option and presenting both to town voters via non-binding ballot questions.
In the first motion, the board voted three to two — Kimball, Dean and Marinelli for, and Wallace and Eubank against — to continue the process and proceed with the memo of understanding as outlined in the disposition proposal. In the second motion the board voted unanimously to create a non-binding referendum on the issue, and to educate the public about it including both scenario-based options.
They agreed to meet early Friday morning to draft language for the ballot question or questions to be presented first at the annual town meeting on March 25 and at town elections on March 28.
According to town administrator Paul Cohen, the plan will likely call for public meetings, information posted on the town Web site and, possibly, a town-wide mailing to educate the public on the disposition scenarios and Devens disposition issues.
”The idea is to get a sense of the town, basically to ask voters what they want to do ” Cohen said.