By Hiroko Sato
HARVARD — Mariam Bemis believes the 246-unit affordable-housing project proposed for Vicksburg Square in Devens would give her children the chance to come home again.
After serving in the U.S. military overseas, including Iraq, Bemis’ four children, who remain on active duty, could not afford housing in Harvard, Bemis said. But Trinity Financial’s plan to give a preference for veterans as tenants for the complex could solve the problem.
“This isn’t just about our generation; it’s about the generations to come,” Bemis told the standing-room-only crowd gathering at Town Hall for the public hearing on the Vicksburg Square project Tuesday night. She urged people to vote for it at the upcoming tri-town Super Town Meeting.
Also, the plan would bring the former Army buildings, placed on the National Register of Historic Places, back to life without using tax dollars, said Harvard resident Glen Hughes.
“This is too good a deal to pass up,” Hughes said.
But fellow resident John Knowles believes the project, which would nearly double the existing housing cap in Devens, would force the town to spend much more to provide municipal services if Devens returns to the jurisdiction of Harvard, Ayer and Shirley. Calling the project “a major game-changer” that would “change the entire landscape of Devens,” Knowles said he wouldn’t support the development that would impact the town for years to come.
“I don’t think it’s a good plan fiscally for Harvard,” Knowles said.
Resident Lucy Wallace is also unsure if the town has the resources to provide services needed by veterans, such as veterans agents.
A preference for veterans is good, Wallace said. But “I’m concerned that there is no other local preference” with the project, she said.
With the March 28 Super Town Meeting, which would decide the fate of the Vicksburg Square housing project fast approaching, local residents voiced their support and opposition at the hearing. This was one of the two last hearings scheduled before Super Town Meeting, with the last one expected to be held at 7 p.m. on March 1 at Ayer Town Hall.
Super Town Meeting refers to a Town Meeting that simultaneously takes place in each of three towns that have jurisdiction over Devens. Trinity Financial is proposing zoning changes in order to create the affordable housing in the existing Innovation and Technology Center Zoning District. The proposed changes must pass by a majority vote in all three towns for the housing project to move forward.
While some residents have welcomed Trinity’s plan, saying it would provide be a boon to the local economy while preserving the historic structures, others, including Harvard selectmen, have opposed it, saying the cost of local education and other municipal services necessitated by the development would exceed tax revenue from it should Devens returns to the three towns. Tuesday night, a few residents from each side of the issue stressed those points.
Selectman Ronald Ricci said he was not only concerned about the education costs but about where MassDevelopment plans to send Devens students many years from now. He would feel more comfortable if MassDevelopment talked to the town’s School Committee before Super Town Meeting, Ricci said.
Selectmen Chairman Marie Sobalvarro pointed out that the town could receive 75 cents in federal reimbursement for every dollar it spends on veterans agent services, but the rest would still come out of the local budget.
MassDevelopment spokesman Ed Starzec said the agency would be happy to discuss payment options with the town.