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Devens residents evenly divided (55-to-55) over Vicksburg Sq. project

Nashoba Publishing/Mary Arata
Tallying the Devens resident vote took about a half an hour Monday night. From the right, Devens Committee member Tom Kinch and resident Heather Knowles ensured that only registered Devens voters submitted ballots in envelopes. The envelopes were then handed to Devens Committee member Phil Crosby and Devens resident Ken Ashe who slit the envelopes open and combined the anonymous ballots in one bucket.
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DEVENS – The result of the Devens resident secret ballot was counted Monday night. One hundred and ten ballots were cast.

The sole issue was whether Devens residents support a Boston developer’s proposal to rezone the vacant Vicksburg Square Innovation and Technology campus to permit the reuse of the buildings for a 246-unit, mainly-affordable housing apartment complex.

It was an even split – 55 votes in favor, and 55 votes against the proposal pitched by Trinity Financial, the company picked by state agency MassDevelopment to chart a course for the buildings’ reuse.

In “Town Meeting” parlance, the tie-vote would have failed for want of a simple 1-vote majority. But ultimately the zoning question will be answered on March 28, when registered voters in Ayer, Harvard and Shirley vote at “Super Town Meeting.”

All three towns must agree for passage. A prior 2009 attempt to rezone Vicksburg Square failed in Ayer, nixing the deal.

On Monday, a crowd of 20 onlookers watched the 4-member ‘voting committee’ count the Devens advisory-only ballots. The voting committee was evenly split – with two members who favor the project (Devens Committee members Tom Kinch and committee Chairman Phil Crosby) and two residents who are against the proposal (residents Heather Knowles and Ken Ashe).

Kinch and Knowles logged the envelopes against a master Devens resident list. Crosby and Ashe slit the envelopes and dumped the secret ballots into one box. Some residents hand-delivered their ballots during the meeting which were counted in the vote.

About a half an hour later, the tie vote became clear. Knowles said of the 110-vote turn out for the tiny community was “spectacular.”

It was the Harvard Board of Selectmen which asked to know Devens resident sentiment on the project. Crosby joked “it’s a split thought.”

Devens is not a town. Rather residents of the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ) are counted at Super Town Meeting as either Ayer or Harvard voters depending on the historical political bounds that still divide the former Army base.

DREZ advisory ballots were mailed to Devens households last week, including residents a women’s transitional shelter and a Devens veterans housing project. However, staff at MassDevelopment’s Devens office did not mail ballots to the residents of the federally-funded Shriver Job Corp training center on Jackson Road.

There are 305 Devens Shriver students, with 272 living on campus. The Ayer Town Clerk’s/Registrar’s Office counts 113 registered residential Shriver students on that town’s active voter roll through last Thursday.

But the master DREZ voter list is separately maintained by MassDevelopment, according to Devens Committee member Tom Kinch. That MassDevelopment list is used to log eligible voters in DREZ-centric elections like Monday night’s vote.

A firestorm erupted last week among DREZ and Ayer residents when it was discovered that 42 Shriver students had registered to vote with the Ayer Town Clerk’s Office via simultaneously mailed registration forms. It was an unprecedented Shriver showing according to the Ayer registrar’s office.

Some questioned whether the Shriver students (aged 16 to 24 years old and originating from communities across the state) should have a say in deciding the fate of the project which will have long-term affects for the region. Typical stays for Shriver students vary from 8-months to 2-years.

But, if Shriver students are Ayer/DREZ registered voters, Devens resident Wendy Singleton wanted to know why Shriver students were left out of the DREZ advisory vote. “I just assumed they were part of the community,” said Singleton. “The community means people who live on Devens.”

“It was an oversight,” said Kinch. However, Kinch said that anti-Shriver vote sentiment grew to a fever pitch.

“There was so much of an anti flap that it was decided not to send them out,” said Kinch. “It begs the question – are they considered residents or not? For the purposes of this poll, they are not considered residents.”

“And that’s something we’re going to have to decide as a community,” said Crosby.

Crosby said “people could draw an assumption” as to what would have happened had the Shriver vote been tallied. Many Shriver students are enrolled in the carpentry training program, taught by members of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. The union has been a vocal and visible supporter of the Trinity proposal which projects 150 construction jobs to renovate the hulking buildings in a multi-year, multi-phase buildout.

Three of the five Devens Committee members were absent, and so no formal deliberations took place. Kinch and Crosby said the panel did not plan on meeting again before Super Town Meeting to issue any kind of group recommendation on the project.

Yet, Crosby said he hoped the Harvard School Committee would issue an advisory opinion on the Trinity proposal. The Harvard Board of Selectmen is scheduled to do the same on Tuesday night.

The Devens residents talked about open community dialogue on other DREZ issues. Case in point was the New Years Eve demolition of the former Army chapel that sat on Jackson Road aside the Rogers Field parade grounds.

“One day it was there, the next day it was gone,” said Singleton. “I didn’t hear anything about it getting torn down.’

“I cried,” said Marianne Bemis who was raised on Fort Devens and now resides in Harvard. “I’d been to so many weddings in that church. We never heard why it was taken down.”

Crosby said it was a function of “MassDevelopment doing what it is charged to do,” and that’s the build out of the former Army base.

“It was in bad shape,” said MassDevelopment Land Entitlement Director Ed Starzec, who added “No one wants to operate a tech company in an old chapel with water damage. The property was worth more to us as a clear site.”

“At least a heads up,” would have been appreciated said Ken Ashe of Devens. “I just thought ‘why weren’t we given any advance notice?”

Other residents expressed sadness that the former Fort Devens Davis Library on Jackson Road was sold to a private company which apparently removed the plaque dedicating the former library to a deceased Vietnam Veteran who was stationed on Devens.

Ashe read aloud from the 1994 Devens Reuse Plan which called for keeping such community landmarks. In addition to zoning changes, Trinity and MassDevelopment propose amendments to the Devens Reuse Plan for the apartment project, including increasing the present Devens 282 unit housing cap to 528 units.

— Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.