AYER — The Ayer Board of Selectmen sat in joint session with the Ayer Finance Committee for several hours on Dec. 14 to discuss budget and tax collection issues. But before the selectmen adjourned, the two boards waded into the swirling waters of the Vicksburg Square debate.
On Nov. 29, the Ayer Finance Committee unanimously agreed to release its negative recommendation against the project being pitched by Boston-based developer Trinity Financial.
“My concern is where the Board of Selectmen stood,” said Finance Committee Chairman Brian Muldoon. “Are we on the same sheet of music? How are we going to approach it?”
The selectmen hesitated on a formal vote that night. Still, a majority (three of the four Ayer selectmen present) indicated they were not in favor of a 246-unit apartment building at Vicksburg Square consisting primarily of affordable housing apartments. The swing vote has proven to be Ayer selectman Jim Fay.
A sea change for an Army veteran
Fay was a vocal spokesman for the failed 2009 MassDevelopment-led effort to rezone Vicksburg Square for up to 350 housing units. During his Vietnam-era service as a finance officer in the U.S. Army, Fay once had an office in Knox Hall, one of the four main buildings at Vicksburg Square. Following his retirement, Fay moved his family from Fort Devens and set down roots in Ayer.
A majority of Ayer voters nixed the residential rezoning of the complex which has languished under business incubator zoning. Ayer’s collective ‘no’ vote trumped ‘yes’ votes delivered by simultaneously-held Harvard and Shirley Town Meetings.
Disheartened with the failed vote, Fay took a hiatus from attending the tri-town Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS) meetings on Devens for several months. In remarks to his fellow selectmen and Finance Committee members, Fay noted that he was now just concluding a year’s service as the JBOS chairman, having resumed a role at the regional table. “I’m the chair of the JBOS until tomorrow night,”
“If I were to vote today, I’d say no to Vicksburg Square,” Fay told the two Ayer boards.
Fay said the project would take tenants from struggling Ayer landlords. “When I drive around Ayer this week, I see more signs that say ‘for rent’…There’s too many vacancies.”
As to what entity or entities will ultimately assume control of the 4,400 acres of the decommissioned U.S. Army base, Fay said it’s a complete unknown. “The legislature can say ‘leave it the same’ and all options are on the table as since day one. And I’m not convinced the town (Ayer) wants it all back.”
Fay knocked Trinity’s move to retain a East Coast public relations agency to sell the voters, saying the developer has hired “a new spin doctor.”
“It’s called public relations, OK?” said Selectman Chairman Gary Luca who supports the Trinity project.
Fay resorted to another label, “No ‘Slick Willie’ is going to come in ….”
“I think they wrote the rebuttal,” interjected Muldoon. The Liberty Square Group disseminated Trinity’s Dec. 12 formal written rebuttal to the Ayer Finance Committee’s stance.
Fay doubted Trinity’s assertion that the 600 prospective tenants of the complex would rain somewhere between $6 million to $8 million – or $28,000 per unit – in disposable income down on the local economies like downtown Ayer.
Fay said its especially true for the tenant of the 78 senior units, once rent and auto costs were covered out of available income. “I guarantee having been one, or I am one, that I don’t have that kind of money,” said Fay. “I haven’t got $28,000 of disposable income.”
Fay blasted the placement of “all of that income bracket in one spot” without supportive mass transit services like is available around Trinity’s more urban Boston and Lowell projects.
Fay said he’d just talked about the real estate market with North Middlesex Savings Bank President William Marshall. Marshall chairs the Devens Enterprise Commission – the one-stop land use authority which would review Trinity’s Devens plans should voters approve of the rezoning.
Fay suggested that Devens residents invested in Devens housing believing future housing would also be owner-occupied. “That’s what people thought they were getting when they moved in there.”
However, Fay said he wanted to “wait to get all the information before I vote on it.”
“We can try tonight, if you like,” said selectman Pauline Conley, who’s consistently opposed the Trinity plan in recent months.
Fay suggested the selectmen wait for a “full board” in deference to the short- term medial absence of selectman Carolyn McCreary.
“She’ll be back at some point in January,” said Conley. “It may already be to Town Meeting by then.” Trinity has proposed a late January or early February tri-town vote to decide the fate of Vicksburg Square. Trinity has stated that they’ll walk from the project if the vote fails to materialize.
Muldoon asked the selectmen to clarify the process. “MassDevelopment comes to town and they say ‘We want a Super Town Meeting.’ What are our options?” Muldoon was concerned that a Super Town Meeting will dilute attention to the Fiscal Year 2013 municipal budget planning process which will be at full tilt at about the same time.
“We must have it,” said Conley. “We don’t have an option.”
But Selectman Frank Maxant, another opponent of the project, has suggested the Ayer selectmen “verify” the legal opinion being forwarded by MassDevelopment. Harvard’s town counsel has questioned the legal adequacy of Trinity’s series of three town hearings, stating that two hearings must be called in each town before the process may proceed to a forced Super Town Meeting vote, even over the selectmen’s wishes.
“Never believe a single thing you hear out of MassDevelopment,” said Maxant.
“The [setting of a Town Meeting] warrant is the business of the selectmen,” said Fay. “We can say yes or no.”
“Not per statute,” said Conley, a reference to the process MassDevelopment says controls, as outlined in Chapter 498 of the Acts of 1993.
“We’re stuck with a date Trinity picks?” asked Muldoon. “If you can, push it away.”
A sole selectman speaks in support
“I’m probably in the minority here,” acknowledged Luca. Luca cited 2008 data in asserting that Devens at full build-out would generate $24 million in annual tax revenue, with $4 million flowing to Ayer if the town resumed jurisdiction over lands within its historical political bounds. “The rest is Harvard largely,” Luca said.
Luca said the report illustrates how Harvard would realize $17.7 million in tax revenues and Shirley would receive $2.5 million in revenue if it resumed control of its lands, too.
“I’m curious how you came to the conclusion that this wouldn’t be sustainable in the future,” Luca pressed the Finance Committee.
Luca also said any disposable income is welcome in Ayer. “If it’s a dollar, then it’s a dollar more to tip a waitress at 31 Main (Restaurant in Ayer).
“If they can afford the meal,” jousted Conley.
Finance Committee Vice Chairman Scott Houde said “for every Bristol Meyers Squibb, some stay for a year and then they’re out.” Houde doubted the accuracy of the projected tax revenue stream. Route 128 will grow first, Houde, but not necessarily Devens which is “slightly beyond the [Route] 495 belt.”
“I’m done,” said Luca before throwing in the towel on the mini debate.
Finance Committee member Michael Pattenden said “These people are supposed to be verging on the poverty line. They’re not going to have $28,000 of disposable income after rent and cars…I think we’re all in favor of Vicksburg Square being saved. We just really don’t want it saved on Ayer’s back.”
Finance Committee Chairman Brian Muldoon said the panel digested Trinity and MassDevelopment data, as well as a report from a Harvard committee who’s researched the project’s impact with regard to that town. Muldoon said unknowns are what tax incremental financing (TIF) deals have been offered to companies to site on Devens “and what DEC’s giving away.”
Maxant called the project “entirely unsuitable for this community for who we are or think we are.” He said it was akin to taking a city block from Cambridge or Arlington and voting to “plunk it down” into Ayer.
Maxant said MassDevelopment has shirked its responsibility in marketing the complex for R&D purposes, opting to move into rented space at Devens Commons seven years ago.
“They have failed miserably,” said Maxant. “Raise it” he suggested if a suitable tenants cannot be found to fill out the complex. “Their blood is not on our hands. Spending $500,000 in rent they could have used in those buildings? If they let it deteriorate to that extent, sell the bricks.”
“There’s more questions than answers,” said Muldoon. “I find myself saying ‘I don’t know.”
“I view it almost as isolated from the rest of Ayer,” said Houde. Luca disagreed. “I feel its part of Ayer.”
Houde suggested the committee not engage Trinity Financial “point-by-point on rebuttals. We don’t think it’s going to add any value to the process.” But Houde did state that its “always bothered me” that Trinity assures “MassDevelopment handles all the (municipal) services and for us not to look at the possible impact on our services as a town. That would be very naïve and short sighted on our part.”
Houde suggested there were more questions than answers, with answers “very easily glazed over by Trinity in their presentation.”
Houde drew laughs when he suggested there was “too much sunshine pumped into those [numbers] — and other stuff pumped into it, also.”