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Planning consultants speak at LWV forum on Vicksburg Square

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HARVARD – At a public forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters Tuesday night, two planning consultants discussed and answered questions about the proposed rezoning of Vicksburg Square — the lone warrant article slated for Super Town Meeting in Harvard, Ayer and Shirley next week.

Judith Barrett is a director of commercial development at a Boston firm, who has worked on master plans in Harvard, Ayer and Shirley, and has extensive zoning experience.

Larissa Brown is a chief planner at a Boston architectural firm and a founding member of Smart Growth Alliance. She is also a consultant and chaired the Cambridge Planning Board for several years. She worked with the Joint Boards of Selectmen in 2002 on the Reuse Plan’s five-year review.

The Vicksburg Square rezoning article is being forwarded by Mass Development, the state agency in charge of Devens. It seeks voters’ authorization to alter zoning provisions in the Devens Reuse Plan that the towns accepted when the former military base closed over a decade ago.

The proposal now is to expand existing zoning parameters specific to Vicksburg Square, and to amend the Reuse Plan to make it consistent with the new zoning, Barrett said.

The deserted 19-acre site, with its enclave of imposing brick buildings, has been called “the historic heart of Devens.” The buildings, most of which are listed on the National Historic Register, were built between 1929 and 1940 and were once used by the military. Overlooking the former military parade ground, the buildings have been vacant for years and have begun to deteriorate, prompting the bid to change their zoning.

“Zoning says ‘this is what you can do,'” more than it addresses prohibitions, Barrett said. Specifically, the proposal to rezone Vicksburg Square will allow more uses than current zoning does, she said.

While original zoning was for light industry and focused on “Innovation and Technology,” the proposed change allows residential development.

MassDevelopment’s earlier intent to attract research and development was not successful, she said, but the proposed new zoning doesn’t rule out R&D. It adds another permitted use: multifamily residences.

There has been some speculation about what Vicksburg Square might look like under the new rules, but with no developer on board yet, artist’s renderings are not available. Barrett said building exteriors won’t be altered unless there’s a compelling reason, following Massachusetts Historical Commission guidelines.

The idea, she said, is to preserve the historic buildings in Vicksburg Square.

If plans gel, development of Vicksburg Square would increase the housing unit cap of 282 set by the Reuse Plan to a total of 350 units, including rentals. The setup mixes affordable units with 30-year deed restrictions and market-rate price tags for both sales and rentals. A side benefit of the plan is the addition of affordable units that may help the towns meet their quotas under the state’s “40B” law.

That issue is particularly important to Harvard in staving off “hostile 40B” development. Under the state law, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) allows developers to skirt local zoning laws — such as those governing density — if 20 percent of the new units meet affordable housing guidelines.

Questions and answers Q: Is there any limitation on the division of affordable credits?

A: Twenty-five percent of units must be affordable, overall. Although the schematic hasn’t been worked out yet, no one town could expect to get them all.

Q: Will the fact that Vicksburg Square stands within the boundaries of three towns, with a county boundary dividing one of the buildings cause complications?

A: The county line could raise issues about affordability, since income benchmarks differ between Middlesex and Worcester counties. However, DHCD might be able to help by setting a standard solely for Vicksburg Square. Barrett said she does not foresee major issues and none that should affect rezoning. However, she suggested seeking an affordability income standard, in writing, to avoid confusion later on.

Q: Why trade an asset for a liability?

Ayer resident and former selectman Frank Maxant said goals and objectives set forth in the Reuse Plan for an Innovation and Technology Center are being traded for “tenements.”

The two women took exception to the term, but Maxant insisted it applies, by definition.

“Those of us involved in Devens reuse planning recall that Harvard residents were very concerned about too much housing on our Enterprise Zone,” he said.

Harvard’s concern was overburdening the schools. Stu Sklar, a member and former chairman of the School Committee, said he’d changed his mind and now supports the zoning change, albeit with some reservations.

But Barrett said that shouldn’t be what zoning is all about. “I think it’s sad” to make zoning rules based on numbers of school-age children who might move in, she said.

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