DEVENS — It was the first appearance before the Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC) last Tuesday night for MassDevelopment’s proposed $7.5 million combined Police and Fire station project.
While MassDevelopment sought added time to submit more data in support of their application, the brief presentation sparked some debate over what role the DEC plays in the overall development-permitting process.
Not discussed at the DEC meeting were MassDevelopment’s efforts in recent months to sign up area towns to buy into the project to receive regionalized emergency dispatching services. A letter from the Ayer Board of Selectmen, opposing the facility’s construction, helped fuel the fire.
Alan Delaney, MassDevelopment’s director of engineering, was the sole presenter on behalf of the MassDevelopment, the Devens redevelopment authority. Delaney sought approval for the construction of a public safety building at 279 Barnum Road on land located directly behind the present Devens firehouse at 182 Jackson Road, “efficiently using the site while allowing for future expansion of the building.” By building immediately next to the firehouse, the building could be erected without the need for too much fill if the footprint were to stray too far eastward.
The 1930s or 1940s vintage firehouse would remain, though two recent additions would be demolished.
The Devens Fire Department would be relocated on the left- hand side of the building abutting the old firehouse. The State Police would be housed on the right-hand side of the building instead of its current location at 59 Buena Vista St. The old State Police barracks could be rolled into the proposed Vicksburg Square rehabilitation site, Delaney said, “so we can get some value out of that building.”
While the Devens Fire Department sought six drive-through bays, Delaney said the plans call for just three bays now, but with “an expansion capability if needed over time.” The firehouse would serve as unheated storage for Fire and Police supplies and equipment.
Consolidating Fire apparatus at one location will speed Devens Fire response times, Delaney said. Presently some Devens Fire equipment is stored at the Devens DPW yard, he said. Traffic signals would momentarily freeze traffic directly in front of the facility and also at the Barnum and Jackson Roads intersection in emergencies to allow fire trucks safe passage.
The project dates back to a 1999 study that determined in 2000 that it would take $2.5 million for each the present Devens Police and Fire headquarters to bring the buildings up to code and better the departments’ “standards of living I guess.” Disposition talk iced the idea for a bit, Delaney said, but then slowly the idea emerged to locate the two headquarters in the same facility in 2007 when the feasibility study was “dusted off.” “Recently a decision was made by MassDevelopment executive staff to build it,” Delaney said.
“I’m still not getting – what is the impetus?” said DEC Commissioner Russ Smith. “What issues are the current police and fire having?”
“If you walk through the bunk room, it’s not even close to most codes,” Delaney said. In contrast, the new structure would be “LEED” certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Depending on the degree of energy-saving, CO2 emission-reducing, water-conserving and otherwise “green” building standards employed, “we know we’re into LEED gold; we don’t know how deeply” Delaney said. Plans call for geothermal heating overall and radiant floor heating in the apparatus bays for example.
Under the Green Communities Act, it’s a mandate for all state and public buildings to comply with so-called “stretch code” standards, and LEED certification meets those standards, said DEC Land Use Administrative Director Peter Lowitt and staff planner Neil Angus. A major overall target is at least a 20 percent reduction in energy use.
Disposition rears its ugly head
But then the disposition question arose: What of future plans for Devens lands when MassDevelopment reaches its target “build-out” and withdraws from the former Army base? DEC alternate member Victor Normand has long been involved in trying to seek an answer to the smoldering issue.
“Any thought to design for an alternative use in the event that disposition says there won’t be a Fire or Police department on Devens?” Normand asked. No, Delaney answered, adding that the facility would be fitted with $1 million worth of specialized equipment and prisoner holding cells that would perhaps serve no other purpose than for police needs.
“Maybe something for schools?” Normand joked before continuing on. He asked if “green and sustainable” are concepts that would demand, instead, the reuse of an existing Devens building instead of new construction, “$7.5 million buys you a lot of inefficiency” in that regard.
About five-six construction-grant applications are in the works, Delaney answered, though he admitted “we haven’t been successful in them all.” If all were successful, “we’d get in excess of $7 million” between 911 and Homeland Security grants, for example. “Some have told us – if we haven’t heard ‘no,’ we’re still in the hunt,” Delaney said.
“I frankly don’t think this is the least bit necessary,” said Deborah Skauen-Hinchliffe of Harvard, calling the price tag an “outlandish expense. I’d like to see the board cut the price down.
“And the building is ugly,” Skauen-Hinchliffe added,.”It looks like a federal prison if that’s what you want on this base.”
She urged building an accessory firefighter dormitory aside the present firehouse to provide “proper bunk space.”
“I don’t understand the need for it,” said Ayer Selectman Gary Luca, who suggested instead that the town could provide Devens with emergency services so, “there would be no need to spend $7.5 million on a building that might not be used a few years down the road.”
“We are the permitting authority,” reminded Commission Chairman William Marshall. “We rule on whether or not the project meets the criteria established by rules, regulations and the (Devens) Reuse Plan. That’s what we’ll base our decision on.”
The commissioners were all copied on a letter from the Ayer Board of Selectmen and signed by interim Ayer Town Administrator Jeff Ritter. Commissioner Russ Smith of Ayer read the letter aloud.
The selectmen questioned the public spending on the project, stating it’s “not consistent” with popular trends to study and implement regionalized and consolidated services “wherever and whenever possible.” The selectmen noted that new Police and Fire houses have been constructed recently in the surrounding towns of Ayer, Shirley, Harvard, and Lancaster.
“Does not feel an expense of this size is appropriate,” Commissioner James DeZutter said, repeating a passage from the letter. “In my estimation (this letter) is one that you should have sent to the governor and the Legislature and specifically your legislators,” DeZutter said to Luca.
“We can take no action on it,” agreed Commissioner Paul Routhier. The letter should have gone to MassDevelopment CEO and President Robert Culver, suggested Commissioner Oelfke. “We don’t get to decide whether a building is reasonable or economical.”
But Normand disagreed. “One of the hallmarks of the commission is ‘sustainability’ … Fundamentally this is a public enterprise.” Maintenance for the building, therefore, “is gonna fall to some public entity,” Normand said.
Of MassDevelopment’s pending grant applications, Normand said: “If Devens gets it, another town looses.” Normand appealed to his fellow commissioners to “look in the big context.” Normand called on the DEC staff to “embrace” the concept of “long-term sustainability in every respect.”
Acknowledging that Delaney was a “messenger for the ‘powers that be,” Marshall asked if Culver or new Executive Vice President for Devens Operations George Ramirez had received any other letters in opposition to the project. This was the first, Delaney answered.
“It is important that the governor knows” Ayer’s feelings, Luca said. “I understand that you’re just the permitting board and it’s not in your realm to stop the project, although I wouldn’t mind seeing it.”
As to lobbying efforts, “you have a month,” Marshall told Luca. “Use it wisely,” added Oelfke.
“We need to protect the safety of the individuals involved,” Marshall said of Devens Police and Fire personnel. There were no officials present for either Devens department. “We can’t delay this thing forever,” said Marshall to Luca. “Perhaps you can start a dialogue from your end.”
“We’re moving into the future,” DeZutter said, adding that more housing units are coming “20, 30, 40 years down the pike. Even if Ayer is the fire-protection agency, they may be very happy to have this facility to protect this particular area.”
MassDevelopment was granted a one-month continuance to the public hearing, so testimony can continue to be entered. The commission will retain chief staff engineer David Varga of BSC Group to review the facility plans on the DEC’s behalf.
A radio tower to be located atop the proposed facility would be visible to Devens’ residents and needs a zoning waiver, but is not in the “view shed.” It will not be a “tree-disguised tower,” Lowitt said, referring to the cell-phone tower visible from Route 2 and located on Old Shirley Road in Harvard.