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Nashoba Publishing/Mary Arata
Ayer Zoning Board of Appeals member John Cadigan asked to know what Devens residents think about the proposed 246-unit, largely-affordable housing apartment project pitched by Trinity Finacial for Vicksburg Square on Devens.
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AYER – Wrapping up an arduous schedule of public meetings, Boston developer Trinity Financial, via state agency MassDevelopment, intended to convene it’s last “public hearing” last Thursday night at Ayer Town Hall regarding its proposed Vicksburg Square apartment project on Devens.

But debate broke out in the audience as to whether or not the meeting actually conformed to the legal standard for a public “hearing.”

Chapter 498 of the Acts of 1993 spell out the procedure for holding public hearings before MassDevelopment can demand warrants be signed by the Ayer, Harvard and Shirley selectmen to convene a “Super Town Meeting.” The agency had hoped to set the tritown vote to request rezoning Vicksburg Square for Wednesday, March 28.

Ayer, Harvard and Shirley voters will decide whether to add multifamily uses atop the languishing Innovation and Technology zoning at Vicksburg Square. Four of every five units would be set aside as “affordable” housing. Six hundred residents are projected, including some 100 school-aged children.

The Vicksburg campus is bisected by the historical Ayer/Harvard town line. It’s not clear if the land will eventually revert to the towns’ jurisdiction or whether the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ) will eventually become it’s own township.

Nearly half of the 40 people present were union carpenters from throughout the region. Two of the 17 carpenters present spoke in favor of the project, including brief remarks from Carolyn McClanahan of Shirley.

Jack Donahue, Regional Business Manager for the New England Regional Council of Carpenters based in Worcester said his fellow carpenters are hungry for work in this stalled economy. He said this great recession is a “great depression” for carpenters who “need to put food on the table. That’s what this project does for us.”

Donahue projected 150 carpenters would find employment at each of the four main Vicksburg Square buildings as the project is built-out in phases. Donahue, who chairs the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, added, “Devens has always been the economic engine for this end of Worcester County.” Devens is divided by the Middlesex and Worcester County line.

“Trinity has figured out a way to do this and make it work for everybody,” argued Donahue.

Not according to Ayer Finance Committee Vice Chairman Scott Houde. His committee unanimously opposes the project due to the municipal carrying costs for whatever community inherits governmental jurisdiction over the former Fort Devens Army base lands.

Houde projected an uptick in fire, police and ambulance costs to service the Vicksburg Square tenants. “There’s bound to be problems and so there’s bound to be responses by the police department.”

Trinity Vice President for Construction Hank Keating said any added emergency services expense would be “negligible.” Keating said 50 units would fall in Harvard’s historical town bounds and the rest in Ayer. Keating noted that 70 units are set aside for senior citizens.

Ayer selectman Chairman and project proponent Gary Luca cited a 2008 study indicating the costs for Ayer resuming jurisdiction of it’s historical lands as $287,500 for added Fire and $247,000 for added Police Department costs, “regardless if 246 more housing units are there or not.” Luca did not provide either DPW or education estimates.

Luca said there’s $1.1 million in tax revenue generated now by former-Ayer governed Devens lands and $4 million in revenues projected “at build out” by MassDevelopment.

Luca also said “every school district in this region has been bleeding children” and so the school children would be a boon to whatever school district receives them.

“It’s a good way to start and not take a chance on purchasing a house, even if they could qualify to purchase a house, and be a member of the community,” said Luca, garnering a burst of applause from the carpenters contingency.

Luca added that 246 units on 19 acres isn’t a problem. “Density, in my mind, isn’t a concern.”

Devens Committee Chairman Phil Crosby rebuffed the often-stated term that Devens is “rural.”

“That’s not rural to me. Ayer isn’t rural,” said Crosby. “I have friends in Rutland. They have one road in and one road out. That’s rural.”

Ayer Planning Board candidate and former Ayer Conservation Commission member David Bodurtha said the vote will determine whether or not Ayer voters would agree to resume jurisdiction of its former lands. Trinity and MassDevelopment are “not really offering Ayer anything the town really needs,” said Bodurtha, who knocked MassDevelopment’s track record as an economic engine in the region.

“Think about it. I haven’t seen a lot of real industry go into Devens,” said Bodurtha. “I’m not sure why that’s the case. There’s warehousing but not real employment.”

Trinity’s track record isn’t the question, Bodurtha said. “The real question is: Is this the right use for that facility?” MassDevelopment has defended its attempts to attract high tech tenants to the space. MassDevelopment itself was a tenant in Vicksburg Square until it moved out seven years ago to become a paying tenant at Devens Commons.

Ayer selectman and project opponent Frank Maxant argued it’s “not a sensible place to put a city block of housing when there’s no city to put it in.” Maxant noted that former base libraries, chapels and sports arenas have been demolished.

But Trinity Project Manager Abby Goldenfarb asked how the current 106 Devens households survive now. “That’s people’s choice to live there.”

Harvard selectman Marie Sobalvarro could not be present for the hearing but sent an email which Maxant read into the record on her behalf. In it, Sobalvarro said she sought codification of Trinity’s assurances within the Town Meeting warrant language to be presented to voters. As it sits, pledges on the number of age restricted and veterans housing units will all reside in a side agreement between Trinity and MassDevelopment (in a “Memorandum of Agreement” or MOA).

Include it all in the bylaw “so we can vote on it,” wrote Sobalvarro. Also, Sobalvarro asked why Trinity proposes buying Vicksburg Square building by building instead of all at once.

While the residential reuse of Vicksburg Square could be “a benefit,” Sobalvarro said that, in her opinion, “This is not the right project .The Trinity folks are very nice, yet I can’t base my vote on personalities and pictures.”

Sobalvarro’s email provoked the most detailed response from Trinity officials. Keating said “our zoning attorneys said those are not matters you’d find in a zoning bylaw” despite the fact that MassDevelopment did include those assurances in a nearly identical attempt to rezone Vicksburg Square for residential reuse in 2009. Keating said the company’s legal counsel has advised the inclusion of firm numbers “would be challenged as illegal.”

“The fact that it was done differently last time does not give our zoning attorney any comfort,” said Keating. Also a developer doesn’t “put those things in there” when presenting the package to institutional investors to buy-in. “That’s how we came up with the MOA.”

To change the percentage of affordable housing, senior housing, or the pledged veterans preference, Keating asserted that any changes to the MOA too would have to “come back before all three Boards of Selectmen and all three towns” though the towns are not signatories on the side agreement.

Goldenfarb was more emphatic in denying, “any implication that we’d pull a bait and switch we’d risk of 25 years of a very good reputation. If people don’t believe in the legal language that we’re being guided on, then they can choose not to believe that. But we’d not risk the reputation of our company to do a bait and switch.”

The 2009 MassDevelopment proposal called for just 25-percent affordable housing and an unspecified number of condominiums versus apartment units. The 2012 Trinity proposal calls for 60-percent affordable housing and all units as rentals.

Keating said that there’s “not enough of a market for a developer to come in and do it without low income tax credits. They’d be in a negative position. They’d never undertake it without that resource. The plan we put forward is the one that’s financially feasible.”

Several Devens residents have recently sounded off to their own quasi-board of selectmen, called the Devens Committee. The residents complained that no one has bothered to poll them about what they want to see done with the buildings that are effectively visible outside their windows.

Ayer Zoning Board of Appeals member John Cadigan noted, “I have not heard a collective voice on Devens and I don’t know who’s putting that together.”

Crosby said there is a March 20 Devens “vote” now scheduled to gauge Devens sentiment. “We want to be as inclusive as possible of all Devens residents” and get a “clear sentiment, whichever way it goes.”

After the meeting came to a close, a buzz arose among audience members who agreed that the meeting didn’t seem to meet the legal requirements of a “public hearing.” Interestingly, the March 1 Ayer and Feb. 21 Harvard public “hearings” were a compromised reached between MassDevelopment, Trinity and the Town of Harvard which challenged the legal sufficiency of a trilogy of “public hearings” held in the three Devens in November.

The Shirley Board of Selectmen signed off on Super Town Meeting warrant language on Monday, March 5. The Harvard Board of Selectmen delayed a warrant signing on March 6, indicating many questions they’d posed to the backers have not yet been answered.

The Ayer Board of Selectmen has scheduled a meeting for Wednesday, March 7. As we go to press, it was not immediately clear if there would be a quorum available for the selectmen’s meeting, or how the question of the March 1 Ayer ‘public hearing’ will be handled.

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