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DEVENS — The Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS) from Ayer, Harvard and Shirley officially support the rezoning of the vacant Vicksburg Square buildings to allow for multifamily uses.

But Harvard Selectman Tim Clark, himself a former multiyear member of Harvard’s Planning Board, laid down a challenge to MassDevelopment Executive Vice President Richard Montuori at the final public hearing May 21 on the zoning proposal: Produce evidence of Patrick Administration support for this housing initiative.

Answering the call, an eleventh-hour endorsement arrived by fax Monday morning.

A one-page letter of endorsement was signed by Tina Brooks, the housing policy chief within the Patrick Administration’s Department of Housing and Economic Development (DHCD).

She wrote, “I write to offer my support for the proposed redevelopment of Vicksburg Square as a primarily residential community within Devens.

“Housing is a critical component for economic development. Throughout the state and region we have seen the deleterious effects of the housing shortage. With this development, we have an opportunity to support the companies like Evergreen Solar and Bristol Myers Squibb that have staked their futures on the success of Devens.

“The Vicksburg Square project is an important step toward building a vibrant community at Devens, a community that welcomes both residents and businesses and is an economic center for northern Worcester County. I applaud the work of the Joint Boards of Selectmen. You have all devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to building something unique. I look forward to continuing to work with you in helping make Devens a strong, vital part of the commonwealth, and again, I urge you to support the proposal (sic) redevelopment of Vicksburg Square,” concluded Brooks.

Questions linger

Clark says he’s “pleased” to see Brooks’ letter supporting the proposed zoning changes. But he found it “very odd that over a year and a half ago, then Secretary (Daniel) O’Connell and Brooks came out championing the need for 400 units of “workforce housing” and then nothing from that office related to initiatives regarding housing at Vicksburg Square.”

Since then, Clark notes that the agency has sent out Alana Murphy as a liaison to the JBOS board, but that she has only “sporadically attended our meetings” without offering any official position for or against the project.

So Clark wonders, does the released letter of support satisfy the DHCD’s call for 400 units of workforce housing? “The unspoken question is, if not, then will we see a request for yet 400 more at a future date?” said Clark. “I think, although it is not explicit, that Brooks letter says Vicksburg Square would meet their expectations for socalled workforce housing. The letter is silent on future requests or if they are satisfied with 350 (units).”

Still, the elephant in the room for Clark is the operating costs down the road. “Operating a municipality requires the significant commitment of tax revenues to service residential development. Easily 75 cents of every dollar raised goes to provide services to residential property (with the lion’s share going to schools),” he said.

“When MassDevelopment (MD) goes away in the future (and they will), some community will be responsible for providing services to the residential population at Devens,” said Clark. “Although none of the three towns are on the hook today to pay for these services, somebody will be tomorrow and we need to understand how our actions today (zoning changes) may affect our financial future tomorrow if Devens truly is to remain sustainable.” he said

“Towns have the responsibility to provide the best possible services at the lowest cost without exceeding our two and a half percent levy limit. Mass Development doesn’t. The DREZ is not a municipality and is not subject to the same requirements that the three towns are. MD is there to sell and manage real estate (and provide what services are necessary to the property in the DREZ) until all the property the state owns is sold, leased or rented or a permanent governance structure is established in the DREZ. MD will do whatever they have to do to meet those goals without having to take the long view beyond 2033. That’s not being critical, that’s just being honest,” said Clark.

JBOS’ Jim Fay

Ayer selectman and fellow JBOS member Jim Fay has remained a steadfast supporter of the Vicksburg Square rezoning initiative. He says it’s only logical.

“History has shown that the current IT (Innovation and Technology) zoning hasn’t been successful. We’re hitting a brick wall on a dead end street, so we have to change the course of direction towards a different initiative.”

He says while there’s been informal interest expressed to MassDevelopment by developers who may potentially bid on the project, “it’s not true that someone is waiting behind the curtain to (bid and) say, ‘I’ve got it!’ The Vicksburg Square Subcommittee and the Joint Boards as a whole have agreed to monitor this project through to its success. What it will become is up to us. If we have something from the developer that we don’t like, then it won’t go forward.”

He praised Clark for posing the tough questions, but says they shouldn’t become roadblocks to progress. “Too much and you’re not going to get anything done. Efforts over the last 10 years trying to get it (Vicksburg Square) developed as IT has not been successful. So, to the (DHCD) letter, I’m very pleased that we received the letter. We also have (supporting) comments from the downtown initiative statement in Ayer.”

“We have been forever linked for the past 90 years to the economic tides of Devens. We’ll continue to be successful as long as Devens continues to be successful,” said Fay.

To the heart of Clark’s concerns, Fay rhetorically asks, “where do I begin? Seventy-five percent of the units are going to be potentially geographically in Ayer if we go back to historic boundaries. Harvard’s concerns over schools will be with regard to school choice, but they can’t control that. And an influx of some 100 students won’t be adverse to any town. They’re welcome in Ayer, even if regionalization goes through in Ayer with Shirley where there’ll only be 900 students. They look at that up-tick as miniscule. A 1,000-student swing would be more noticeable.”

Regarding workforce housing, Fay says, as he reads it, the DHCD letter “speaks for itself,” clearly stating the units gained would go most of the way of providing the housing desired for Devens based businesses. “We need workers to live close to where they work. They’re not going to want to commute long distances to work at Devens. MassDevelopment has always been about jobs and sustainability. Without housing to support that economic development, you’re not going to be successful.”

Clarifying that he’s speaking for himself on this point especially, Fay feared the newfound JBOS spirit of cooperation would be delivered a fatal blow if the Vicksburg Square Super Town Meeting votes failed to win in all three towns Monday night.

“This isn’t about jurisdiction,” said Fay. “It’s about restoring the historical character, the heart and sole of Devens for those who’ve lived and worked in the area. The majority of people who’ve lived or worked here, or plan to work here. We, and they, want it.”

Super Town Meetings

Super Town Meetings convene simultaneously Monday night, June 8, at 7 p.m. at Harvard’s Bromfield School, Ayer High School’s auditorium, and Shirley’s Middle School Auditorium.

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