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Ayer selex ask Harrington, Eldridge to opine on Vicksburg Square

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AYER – At the Feb. 7 Ayer Board of Selectmen meeting, State Representative Sheila Harrington (R- Groton), then State Senator Jamie Eldridge (D – Acton), was asked to state whether they support rezoning the vacant Vicksburg Square campus on Devens to permit a 246 unit apartment complex. Ayer, Harvard and Shirley voters will likely decide the question at a tentative March 28 “Super Town Meeting.”

Harrington glowingly endorsed the proposal. Arriving later in the discussion, Eldridge reserved comment at this time.

Ayer Town Meeting nixed a 2009 MassDevelopment proposal to rezone the stalled Innovation and Technology center to permit development of a 350-unit multifamily complex. That plan called for an unspecified number of condominium units for sale. Harvard and Shirley Town Meetings voted yes, but to no avail since three majority ‘yes’ town votes are needed to change Devens zoning.

The new proposal formulated by Boston developer Trinity Financial calls for fewer units but with no ownership opportunities. The 2009 plan stated that 25-percent of the units would be “affordable.” In contrast, the Trinity proposal calls for 80-percent of the apartments to have “affordable” rents for income-qualifying households.

The Ayer Board of Selectmen has not taken a formal vote on the project. Three months ago, the Ayer Finance Committee unanimously recommended against the project, citing concerns over the municipal costs associated with the project for whatever town(s) ultimately inherits Vicksburg Square.

The project is bisected by the Ayer/Harvard town line. MassDevelopment services the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ) until an alternative governance structure is enacted for the former Army-owned land.

Ayer selectman Jim Fay emailed the lawmakers seeking their stance. Fay said he’d received responses one-on-one before the meeting. Still, selectman Pauline Conley pressed Harrington to share her views with the public.

Harrington was elected in 2010, a year and a half after the first Vicksburg vote. Harrington’s district includes Ayer and hence a portion of the DREZ.

“If I was smart, I’d defer,” laughed Harrington. “But I have to be completely honest with you. I have met twice with Trinity Financial. I have reviewed their numbers. I’m a big proponent.” Harrington said the project would boost Ayer’s languishing West Main Street business corridor.

Harrington said “a lot of the fears are unfounded” and argued the project would not become a “low income ghetto.” Harrington said household incomes would nudge $60,000.

“It keeps going up,” said Conley. Trinity reports that total household incomes could be no lower than $16,000 for a single occupant, nor higher than $57,000 for a four-occupant apartment. After rent, Trinity proposes that households would have $2,500 a month (or a total of $6-8 million a year) in ‘disposal income’ to infuse into the local economy.

“They have to have the 80 percent [affordable housing] to get the tax credits to make it work,” said Harrington.

Harrington said she “pushed” Lowell Senator Eileen Donahue for feedback on Trinity’s Appleton Mills project “Give me the downside,” Harrington said she told Donahue.

But Harrington said Donahue reported “it’s been a huge plus” for the “working population.” The upside is that residents were able to invest in “a private home that they’ve purchased.”

Harrington said apartments on Devens would be “a way to provide housing for those in working jobs when they’re not at a point to purchase a home.”

Voting against the project might compromise the historical structures, Harrington suggested. “My fear is that we’re going to be kicking this can down the road. They have to be restored at some point.
Trinity Financial or whoever it would be would be coming in and taking care of that – taking the burden off the towns.”

Harrington scoffed at talk that MassDevelopment will “up and leave us” in 2033, leaving the towns “high and dry,” saddled with the DREZ municipal carrying costs. “It’s not an automatic.”

Harrington said the cost of educating Vicksburg’s school-aged children would be negligible. Harrington said the cost is equal to 1 percent of the current $21 million Ayer-Shirley Regional School District budget.

Conley asked Harrington if she’d met with the Ayer Finance Committee to hear first-hand why it opposes the Trinity project. Harrington said she had not.

The education costs have been hotly-debated between Trinity and Harvard’s Devens Economic Analysis Team (DEAT). The Ayer Finance Committee has largely embraced the DEAT’s findings on the project.

Originally Trinity consultant Byrne McKinney estimated 145 children would live at Vicksburg Square with 112 being school aged. DEAT crunched the numbers at the rate of $13,100 per student, the amount MassDevelopment reimburses Harvard to educate each Devens student. The projected education expenses soared over $1.4 million.

Due to DEAT fallout, Trinity commissioned a second study from ConsultEcon which downwardly revised the headcounts to 99 children and 77 school-aged students living at Vicksburg Square. Trinity also argued a lower $9,200 ‘marginal’ cost was the true multiplier to use per pupil.

If Harvard regained jurisdiction of its share of Vicksburg lands and state aid kicked in, Trinity argues Harvard’s (but not Ayer’s) education costs would be $127,000. The complex is expected to raise $208,000 per year in property taxes.

“I decided to talk on Vicksburg Square,” joked Harrington to Eldridge as he entered the room mid-discussion. “Not that smart I guess.”

Conley said her concern was not with Trinity’s work, but rather if the zoning is changed and Trinity fails to secure private financing. Conley said MassDevelopment President and CEO Marty Jones agreed it was a possibility when they talked last month.

“Marty Jones said ‘You’re absolutely right,” said Conley.

Conley asked Harrington to meet with the Ayer Finance Committee. “They’ve been picked-on by Trinity Financial ever since they’ve come out against the project,” said Conley. Conley said it was “incumbent” on everyone to get informed. “Go talk to our finance people.”

Harrington said Trinity was a “very solid” track record on financing. If Trinity failed, “then whoever does [develop Vicksburg Square] must be an even more solid institution,” reasoned Harrington. “There has to be a leap of faith, as long as we don’t see a complete crash economically. I respect that there are concerns.”

Harrington asked Trinity Project Manager Abby Goldenfarb whether the company had “pre-committed investors.” Though selectman Chairman Gary Luca said he didn’t want to launch “into an hour discussion”, Goldenfarb was waved up to the table to answer the question.

“We have investors who’ve vetted our numbers” said Goldenfarb. She said MetLife contributed $42 million towards the Lowell project “at the height of the recession.”

“We do not give up. We don’t turn away from our projects,” said Goldenfarb. “We haven’t turned away from this permitting process.”

Harvard officials have asked how the project would jump a logjam at the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) in order to land critical federal and state low-income housing tax credits. Goldenfarb answered generally, “It would be a high-priority development.”

Regarding the Ayer Finance Committee, Goldenfarb said, “They do not wish to engage with us on a point-by-point basis. We continue to say we do not understand their numbers I’ve engaged with one of their members and asked to engage another one privately.”

“It cannot be private,” said Conley in reference to the Open Meeting Law.

“I support everything you and Sheila said,” said Luca to Goldenfarb. “Spot on.”

Selectman Frank Maxant challenged Harrington by asking, “You’re saying the buildings have to be renovated anyway?” Maxant served 20 years on the Ayer Historical Commission, while Harrington served on Groton’s commission.

“You can’t just pummel those down,” said Harrington. An exception would be, however, if there’s a total loss, like the catastrophic Groton Inn fire last summer.

Maxant argued that historic renovation is to “take an asset from the past and renew it for the future” but not make the building a burden or an “albatross around our necks.”

Maxant suggested that those who originally built the buildings “would think we’re crazy to keep them if it would impact our quality of life in a rural area.”

The buildings are “not a skyscraper,” said Harrington. She said the structures already exist.

Maxant branded the plan an “urban style housing project.” Harrington rejected the label out of hand before leaving for another appointment.

Fay asked Eldridge to chime in. “In the interest of fairness, the bell’s been rung.”

“I don’t have an opinion today,” said Eldridge. “I am looking at it. I’ll probably weigh in before Super Town Meeting. But I do generally support more housing at Devens.”

The Ayer selectmen will host a public hearing regarding the project on Thursday, March 1 at 7 p.m. at Ayer Town Hall. The Harvard selectmen, likewise, have a public hearing planned for next Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. at Harvard Town Hall.

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