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Harvard selectmen to open dialogue with MassDevelopment

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HARVARD — Harvard selectmen intend to meet with MassDevelopment to discuss the future of Devens, but further details of the agenda remain sketchy.

“We did receive a letter saying they’d like to meet at some point and that’s all we’ve heard,” said MassDevelopment Chief-of-Staff Meg Delorier. “It’s not perfectly clear what they want to discuss. I imagine it ultimately pertains to the disposition of Devens.”

If Harvard’s selectmen are to re-engage MassDevelopment on disposition, it’s a discussion they’ve not taken up with the agency since a proposal that Devens become a town was rejected last October.

Selectman Robert Eubank confirmed the letter is about re-opening the dialogue on disposition.

“MassDevelopment is definitely a major player in what’s going on and we want to work with them for the ultimate solution at Devens,” he said. “We want to establish a relationship in the true spirit of cooperation, not an adversarial relationship.”

The bone of contention in this case is Devens’ future, which MassDevelopment feels is best served by increased housing numbers and a new community. However, a number of concerns were raised about that scenario in Harvard, which has the majority of Devens within its borders.

The primary issue was housing numbers, where the state’s non-negotiable housing target of 1,800 housing units would have effectively doubled the population of Harvard. That led to accusations by the town that it wasn’t given a choice in the process.

That issue is not likely to be addressed at the first meeting, indicated Eubank

Though a date has not been set, Eubank has been developing a draft agenda. Likely discussion points include study of an alternative scenario for Devens’ future, what MassDevelopment believes the next step should be, and an invitation to the agency to work as “equal partners” in crafting the next step.

The previous proposal — known as scenario 2B — would have created a new town from portions of Devens within Ayer and Harvard, but was defeated in those communities.

Scenario 2B was crafted by the Devens Disposition Executive Board (DDEB), which had delegates from the host towns of Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley and Devens residents among its members. It also included MassDevelopment, a quasi-public state agency charged with converting Devens to civilian use, and the Devens Enterprise Commission, which serves as the governor-appointed permitting body at Devens.

After 2B was voted down, negotiations on the future of Devens reverted to the body that created the DDEB, the Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS). Unlike DDEB, the state agencies are not members of the JBOS, nor have they been invited to attend.

That’s been cause for disagreement between delegates from Devens and Shirley, who want the state back at the table, and those from Ayer and Harvard, where 2B failed and delegates are wary of rushing to reactivate the DDEB.

Shirley Selectman Chip Guercio has maintained throughout that MassDevelopment needs to be involved. He termed the latest move from Harvard’s delegates a step in the right direction.

“I wholeheartedly endorsed it, I said it’s about time,” he said. “MassDevelopment is the steward of the property so there’s no way you could make a disposition report without them. …you’ve got to talk with them, develop a rapport. You’ve got to trust them at some point.”

However, Eubank cautioned this was not a case of Harvard calling for the DDEB to being re-activated or of MassDevelopment being asked to join JBOS.

“No,” said Eubank when asked. ” What it signals is essentially a desire to talk and establish a relationship. We’ll see where the relationship takes us.”

Devens’ long-term future has been a question mark since closure of the post was announced in 1993.

With the bulk of the Army leaving, the state purchased virtually all of Devens, and then worked with local officials to draw up a reuse plan that would recreate Devens as an “economic engine for the region,” with extensive industrial and business uses.

The ultimate disposition of Devens was left unclear. Planners initially projected a 40-year window for redevelopment, but the addition of Devens residents several years ago gave impetus to determine the base’s future through the DDEB.

Scenario 2B called for sharply increased focus on housing at Devens with over 1,800 units of housing to replace the 282-unit cap at Devens today.

Approximately 60 percent of Devens is within Harvard, as was virtually all of the proposed housing. Since the state housing targets would almost double that town’s housing stock, there were charges that the state was limiting the town’s options and exercising undue influence in the process.

Guercio said questions from the Harvard selectmen likely include whether MassDevelopment is planning to jettison the negotiating route in favor of a unilateral approach to the Legislature for relief from the housing cap. They also want more financial details of the post’s redevelopment, he said.

While it produced Scenario 2B as a ballot question, a frequent criticism of the DDEB was that it did not give people a choice and only produced one scenario for Devens’ future. The Harvard selectmen recently told JBOS they’re not supporting creation of a new community until there’s a comprehensive study about the alternatives for Devens..

Delorier said Harvard is welcome to do its study, be added that MassDevelopment is unlikely to particulate if it resembles work already done by the DDEB.

“We already went through a three-year process,” she said. “I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll be participating in another three-year process that’s repeating something we’ve already been through.”

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