DEVENS — A Dunkin’ Donuts box o’ joe fueled an early morning meeting where the audience of 20 drank in the Devens Committee’s latest effort to jump-start the Devens disposition process.
Tired of sitting in political purgatory, the group filed a citizen’s petition Jan. 18 to ask the state Legislature to make Devens the state’s 352nd municipality.
Devens Committee Chairman Rick Bernklow said: “You can come testify. Anybody who wants to, for good or for ill, can vent whatever they want to say. We’ve been here for a while. Nothing has changed and there’s no impetus to change.”
The five-member Devens Committee is elected by residents of the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone. The DREZ encompasses the remnant 4,400 acres left after the 1996 decommissioning (or shrinking) of the Fort Devens Army base.
Fort Devens has been relegated to the 5,000-acre South Post encampment. There are an estimated 450 residents living in the DREZ.
Devens Committee members serve the Joint Boards of Selectmen for the four Devens communities, which include Shirley, Harvard and Ayer. However, the Devens Committee didn’t notify their JBOS peers before filing their initiative through state Sen. Jamie Eldridge’s office. Eldridge’s district encompasses all four communities.
“We’ve been to hundreds of JBOS meetings. There’s a lot of talk that things will happen, but there’s not a lot of action going on,” said Bernklow. “We need to incentivize everybody to come up with a form of governance because it’s very hard living here in limbo.”
DREZ residents live subject to Chapter 498 of 1993 and the Devens Reuse Plan approved by the three towns in 1994. Municipal services are provided by the quasi-public-state agency MassDevelopment, which is otherwise charged with redeveloping the DREZ. The plan controls for the next 22 years unless the three towns vote otherwise.
“If we want any change to that plan that was developed that long ago, it requires the affirmative vote of Shirley, Ayer and Harvard. Quite frankly, in that time that we’ve been in existence here, that’s never happened,” rued Devens Committee member Jim Geller. “And I’ve concluded that it never will. So if you want to break that logjam before we get to 2033, we have to push.”
“When you moved in, you knew the situation,” said Rick Hamel of Ayer. He said promises of “give and take” became “a lot of take from MassDevelopment for buildings, reuse, Evergreen Solar, which is why you’re in the situation you’re in now. Anything you try to do now is going to be tainted by the MassDevelopment and DREZ brush.”
Hamel questioned whether DREZ residents really want the vacant Vicksburg Square complex to be converted into more than 200 residential units.
“Yes!” interjected DREZ resident Phil Crosby. “We’d love to have some people here instead of empty buildings that are falling down.” A debate ensued as to whether, in fact, the Vicksburg Square buildings are at risk of falling down when Crosby brought the tit for tat to a halt.
“Before I was trying to be politically correct but now I don’t give a (expletive).” Crosby said he’s sick of being deemed a “DREZ resident” and being looked at askance at Harvard Town Meetings.
“I don’t want to live in limbo anymore, so let’s get to the bottom line. We want to be a voting, active, full share partner in something — not disenfranchised,” said Crosby.
To nobody in particular but to the towns in general, Crosby vented. “Get on the stick. Make a decision. Do you want us or not? I’ve lived for eight years under the umbrella of ‘We want to study, we need the figures, we don’t want to hurt our residents with a liability, we need to make sure it’s a cost neutral or not.’ Well what if it’s not? ‘Go away, Devens?’ ”
“If yes, then let’s work hard to make that happen in a way that we’re a full partner and not a spoil,” said Crosby. “Don’t keep yanking me around. I’ll be dead before we figure out what happens.”
Bernklow said the petition has succeeded to “shock” the JBOS into more meaningful disposition discussions as to whether the towns would like to step in and help decide final governance issues sooner rather than later. When the JBOS met two days later, Bernklow said members finally uttered words he longed to hear. ‘We’re in as partners. We’ll put money in the game.’ That’s the first time anyone’s ever said that.”
However, Harvard Selectman and JBOS member Tim Clark urged a comprehensive review first. “It takes a long time, persistence, partnership and communication to really succeed.”
While census figures show Massachusetts is bleeding people, Clark noted unemployment remains high. As far as housing stock, Clark said Central Massachusetts is “not under-housed.”
Bernklow disagreed. Vicksburg Square may provide rental opportunities, he said. “Not everyone lives in ownership housing.”
Clark cautioned against a rush to rentals. “Vicksburg Square is a complicated one and you want to get it right. Those buildings are going to be there another 100 years.”
“The common enemy seems to be MassDevelopment, not Devens,” said Hamel.
Not so fast, said Devens resident Wendy Singleton. “I hate to break it to you, but I go to downtown Ayer, or I used to.”
She relayed a story of a visit to an Ayer hair salon. When others heard her say she was from Devens, “You’d have thought I was an escaped convict. I’ve never met such hostility and resentment in my whole life.”
Crosby agreed earlier that he sensed such hostility before, but he waxed optimistic and forecast Ayer would grow to become an “elite community” within the next 50 years.
“Ayer is still, in my view and I use this as an observation, recovering from being a military base town,” said Crosby. “The whole town is predicated on serving an army base. So there’s a cleansing process that’s going on.”
Devens resident and business owner Armen Demerjian said Chapter 498 was likely constructed to create discord among the four Devens communities “because they knew perfectly well that the towns would never come to an agreement and life is showing that.”
But Demerjian said his friendship with Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant demonstrated how Devens and Ayer residents can work together. “When I say Frank is my friend, they look at me like I’m crazy. We disagree on lots of things. We argue heatedly but we respect each other.”
Maxant is no fan of MassDevelopment and has also routinely suggested that Ayer assume control of the DREZ. He provided the Devens Committee with some historical framework.
“I share Phil’s attitude. I don’t give a hoot anymore and will speak candidly.”
“If you read Chapter 498, you’d ask ‘how can the towns be so stupid?’ Let me tell you, we were not that stupid.”
Maxant said original drafts called for an absolute majority tri-town vote to prevent the power of one town over the others to nix a proposal. Maxant laid blame for veering the legislation off course with attorney David Knisely of Garrity and Knisely.”He essentially lied to the selectmen who bought his lies.”
Maxant warned, “Your principal spokesman at MassDevelopment is (Executive VP for Devens Operations) George Ramirez who is a lawyer hired by MassDevelopment. If he tells you anything contrary to what I’m saying right now, don’t take him at his word. Make him prove it. I’m Revere sounding the alarm. You’re Washington.”
Crosby said that MassDevelopment admittedly has “another agenda” with growing jobs. Their tools can include huge tax breaks and low interest loans, Crosby said. “We all have to be vigilant on that.”
Hamel said, “The antagonism isn’t toward the community and residents of Devens. It’s towards what’s happening as far as business development goes.” Hamel said non-compete clauses were supposed to prevent Devens businesses from competing with the three towns.
“The best thing Ayer could do is for you to renounce this crazy, non-American, non-compete crap,” said Crosby. “We’re in a free market. It sticks in my craw.”
“For those who’ve been here that long, it’s frustrating because you have all this enthusiasm, but as a resident — what’s next?” asked Singleton. “What do we have to look forward to?”