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Trinity denies influencing Vicksburg Square votes with Shriver students

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

DEVENS – Boston developer Trinity Financial is denying claims it tried to influence the outcome of next Wednesday’s “Super Town Meeting” Ayer, Harvard and Shirley vote.

Trinity admits it met with students at the federally-funded Shriver Job Corps training center on Devens to explain its controversial Devens housing proposal. Food was provided as students were encouraged to register to vote to participate in the local zoning decision.

The Ayer Town Clerk’s Office received an unprecedented bulk batch of mail-in voter registration forms after the gathering on March 5. Forty-two individually-posted forms from Shriver Job Corps were received on the same day, each sporting the same stamp design.

Two more forms arrived, postmarked March 16. The total new voter tally from Shriver is 44 voters, bringing the total present total to 115 Shriver registered voters who claim 270 Jackson Road as their legal residence.

The registrations arrived too late to vote for students to vote in the March 6 “Super Tuesday” presidential primary. Rather, the first Ayer election the students may participate in is the controversial March 28 “Super Town Meeting” vote.

The issue is whether to residentially rezone the empty Vicksburg Square Innovation and Technology campus on Devens. Trinity needs the vote to proceed with it’s proposed $83 million, 246-unit affordable housing apartment proposal.

Both MassDevelopment and the Patrick Administration strongly endorse the proposal. Lt. Governor Tim Murray made a local appearance Monday in favor of the plan.

A similar rezoning request failed at Ayer Town Meeting in June 2009. Ninety-five voters participated in the failed 22-to-73 vote. A 115-vote Shriver student voting block could have easily altered that outcome.

The federally-funded Shriver Job Corps program provides under-privileged youth (16 to 24 years old) with training in various fields. Students learning construction trades are taught by union carpenters. Students are also receive free food, shelter, health care, and a living allowance while they acquire job skills and, if desired, their GED or high school diploma.

When voting on regional matters, Devens residents vote in Ayer or Harvard depending on the historical political bounds that divide the former Army base. Shriver students live within Ayer’s political bounds. Their residential stay typically lasts for 8-months up to 2-years.

“I share all the concerns listed here regarding the legitimacy of the Shriver Job Corps students,” said Ayer native and apartment owner Margaret Kidder. “I want to know why it is in the students’ interest to vote on this.” Kidder is representative of many concerns expressed to Nashoba Publishing after the Shriver story surfaced.

“As a landlord in Ayer, I am totally against this,” said Kidder. She said the vacancy rate in Ayer has climbed since the 1996 Fort Devens Army base closure.

This project would flood the market with more apartment units, Kidder said.

“Add to that the last four years of no rental increases due to the economy, higher fuel and taxes, and now the town wants to endorse 246 new apartments up the road, of which a number will be affordable?” said Kidder. “Who is the town supporting? Citizens that live and work here, keep up their properties and support the town? Or an out-of-town developer looking to make a profit?”

“To do this on the backs of the multifamily home owners in Ayer and surrounding communities is wrong,” said Kidder, who added. “If this developer or their representatives are using Job Corps students to pad the vote for them, what tactics will they resort to in order to get tenants once the project is approved?”

On March 20, Trinity public relations spokesman Connor Yunits answered Nashoba Publishing’s March 16 request for comment. He came out swinging,

“To insinuate that there is something underhanded about encouraging young people to get involved in their community and make their voices heard is simply disgraceful.”

Yunits said the Shriver students are Devens residents “and many were registered voters long before we came along.”

“We met with them as we have met with about 20 other groups in the community, as these kids live practically across the street from Vicksburg Square,” said Yunits. While the rumor mill talked of a pizza party, Yunits confirmed that wasn’t on the menu.

“We didn’t serve pizza, but we did serve cookies and cheese and crackers as we have for nearly every other group we have met with,” explained Yunits.

Notably, however, other Trinity-hosted community meetings have not included voter registration drives.

“The kids asked good, tough questions, several had some good ideas, and some even expressed concerns about the project,” said Yunits. “Many were interested to learn that Vicksburg Square would create jobs in the occupations for which they are training (e.g., carpenters, painters and concrete finishers). Many others were sympathetic with the affordable housing goals of the project, as they already know they will have trouble finding decent, affordable housing when they graduate into the working world.”

Shriver Job Corps Center Director Tscherina sent request for comment to the center’s Boston office on March 16. As we go to press for Friday’s editions, no response has been received by noon on March 21.

There’s been no response either from Regional Business Manager Jack Donahue of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. The 22,000-member union is a vocal supporter of Trinity in Boston radio ads.

Donahue has attended each local hearing on the project. Seventeen union members attended the last hearing in Ayer on March 1 which had a total attendance of 40 people. None of the attendees appeared to be student-aged.

There are 305 Shriver students on Devens. There are 272 residential students living on its Jackson Road campus.

Though the students hail from cities and towns all over the state, box 12 on the voter registration form asks the students to attest that their registered address is their “home.”

State law “permits a challenge to anyone believed to be unlawfully registered,” said Ayer Town Clerk John Canney.

Separate from the concerns over the outcome of the Ayer election was concern over this past Monday’s Devens-only advisory vote on what Devens residents want to see happen at Vicksburg Square. The request for the Devens vote was made by Harvard selectmen since the project sits in the middle of Devens residential negibhorhoods.

The results of the Devens ‘vote’, organized under the auspices of the Devens Committee, is in.

It was a dead tie, 55-55.

Emails flew in advance of the vote, with Devens residents asking if Shriver students would be included in the neighborhood vote. Many interpreted the Harvard request as a poll of permanent, and not transient, Devens residents.

MassDevelopment Chief of Staff Meg Delorier confirmed on Tuesday that Shriver students were not, in the end, sent ballots.

“MassDevelopment used its master mailing list for the ballot mailing,” said Delorier. “Shriver residents are not on that list.”

Devens Committee member Tom Kinch said before the Devens vote, “Since the flap has arisen, we’ve held off on the distribution of the ballots to this part of our community. Were I included in this category, I would not be pleased!”

After the vote was tallied, Devens Committee Chairman Phil Crosby said his group would explore why MassDevelopment maintains a different voter registration list than what is generated by the Ayer and Harvard Town Clerk’s Offices.

Kinch argues there’s a difference between regional and Devens-only elections.

“The requirement is that the voter casting [a Devens] ballot be registered in Devens,” said Kinch. “The voter list is public information and maintained and made available by Mass Development. This list is reviewed by our Town Administration, Mass Development, and is used to get voter information out to Devens residents. ”

“Mass Development then oversees the process of the election,” said Kinch. And for the last 15 years, Devens elections have included Shriver students, Kinch said.

Devens resident John Knowles opposes the project. He suggested a separate tally for transient Devens residents.

“We could add categories for any other group the Devens Committee and Trinity may have up their sleeves as they pop up — like guests at the hotels, state police living in the barracks, federal prisoners, reserve troops in the south post, ultimate Frisbee players on Rogers field, etc.”

“This way when the dust settles the original intent of the poll for the surrounding towns will not be lost, which is finding out what the Devens residents that actually have a stake in their community think,” said Knowles. “The folks at Trinity will at least be able to take some solace in all the pizza votes they bought.”

— Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.

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