HARVARD — Municipal building re-use, affordable housing, commercial development, long-term planning, taxes and the disposition of Devens.
These were some of the topics the two candidates vying for a single seat on the Board of Selectmen addressed during a debate at Volunteers Hall Tuesday night.
Selectman and retired former town Fire Chief Peter Warren, whose term expires next month, is not running again.
The candidates are former selectman Lucy Wallace and local Realtor and business owner Rhonda Sprague.
Pre-submitted questions were fielded first and thus steered the debate. Near the end of the two-hour session, the moderator opened the floor to questions from the audience.
Both longtime residents — Wallace has lived in town for 33 years, Sprague for 38 — each said she supports affordable housing. Wallace expressed a decidedly municipal view of the issue, while Sprague approached it more from a Realtor’s point of view.
What did they think of 40 B’s, for example; that is, the state law that allows developers to bypass certain local zoning laws if they set aside a certain percentage of their building projects as “affordable” by state standards.
Sprague favors “friendly 40B’s,” she said.
Wallace said she, too, supports the law “in that sense.”
Groups such as the Municipal Affordable Housing Trust, for example, could partner with project proponents to target specific areas for the best fit, and the town would have a say.
She also said including medium-rate housing units in the mix provides balance.
But Sprague said there’s a problem with that idea. “We can’t catch up,” she said. Every market-rate unit sold raises the base on which the mandated affordable percentage is based.
But rental units up the town’s mandated “affordable” percentage without raising the bar, she said. Bowers Brook, for example, a seniors-only apartment complex on Ayer Road built by local developer Lou Russo.
Wallace countered that the Bowers Brook project works because of subsidies, and in fact was underwritten with $200,000 from the MAHT.
Both candidates said the town should be proactive on this issue, in part through zoning and by adopting proposed changes to allow subsidized, accessory or in-law apartments.
They disagreed, however, on the suitability and viability of the Elms, one of two buildings in town with subsidized rental apartments, both currently in bank foreclosure with public auctions scheduled.
Wallace said she hoped a plan could be worked out to rescue the Elms, a sprawling antique on Mass Avenue in the Town Center. “It’s a great location,” she said.
But Sprague, who is board member of the nonprofit group that manages the two facilities, said it’s hard to keep units rented and even harder to keep up the old buildings. “It’s a money pit,” she said. “The model doesn’t work.”
Asked about the Master Plan update process and how the initiative currently under way might address short and long-term town needs such as expanding the commercial tax base, solving septic system problems in Still River and deciding the future of Devens, Sprague acknowledged she hadn’t read the current Master Plan yet. But she said it may be too soon to invest in another one.
The Master Plan Steering Committee, which Wallace serves on, has been actively pursuing a new and improved plan for the town’s future. Starting last summer, the group held public visioning sessions, sent out a town-wide survey and now wants to proceed to the second phase, with a $100,000 article on the Town Meeting warrant.
Sprague favored stopping the train to get a clear look at the tracks ahead, while Wallace was all for moving forward.
“It’s hard to know where we’re headed,” Sprague said. Let’s hang on to the $100,000 and bring it up again next year.”
Wallace cited outreach via public forums and the survey, which drew nearly 250 responses, as affirmations of shared visions and goals. In her view, it’s time to get going.
“We heard loud and clear that we need to think about Devens,” she said. Should the town resume its jurisdiction over historic boundaries or what?
The sprawling former military base, within which Harvard has historic dibs on a significant swath of acreage, has been a “600-pound gorilla in the living room for some time,” Wallace said. “If we hold off another year, we lose momentum. People are interested now.”
Sprague said plenty of studies have been done already. “A lot of us are pretty clear” on the issues, she said. But the town hasn’t decided on the direction that makes sense. “Maybe it’s time to do that,” she said. “Devens does need to be resolved.”
Schools, services, town government are all affected by what happens at Devens, Sprague continued. “How can we plan for the future without knowing what our borders will be?”
Wallace said phase two of the Master Plan would provide direction to decide on Devens.
Option polls show an equal split among town residents, she said. One third wanted more information. One third said take back Devens. One third said don’t. “We recommend taking charge of the study process through the Master Plan,” Wallace said.
The Master Plan is not a study, she said, it’s a map. “Without it, you end up someplace you don’t want to be,” she said. “We need to start the work now.”
Sprague said it’s key to understand what “taking back Devens” would mean to the town, including opening its roads and sharing a school district.
Other than Route 2, there’s no direct in-town link with Devens. Connecting roads were closed off years ago when it was an Army base. If the town resumed jurisdiction, Devens kids would be educated in Harvard and vice versa and roads that dead-end now would be re-activated.
Income from Devens’ commercial base aside, the question becomes whether the “blend” will work, Sprague said.
Sprague posited that people who live on Devens might prefer to form their own town.
She described Harvard as a “green, farming, rural community” whose character residents hold dear. Incorporating with the community next door could change all that. “Devens is very different,” she said. “We need to decide if it’s compatible.”
Asked about the selectmen’s role in town government and its interactive relationships with other town boards, Wallace described the board she served on for a dozen years as a “five-headed mare” that keeps an eye on other groups, lays out clear directions and sets a tone with its own behavior.
Selectmen should respect the jurisdictions of other boards and help, not hinder, their work, she said.
They should avoid micromanagement, encourage qualified people to volunteer, and the best way to do that is to “respect their work and not get in their way,” Wallace said.
“Well, I think they set the tone,” Sprague said. But her slant was that the town’s top board should encourage diversity on all the others. Sometimes, it takes discussion, even disagreement to get things done,” she said. “But we must do it respectfully.”
As a Realtor, that’s her basis for working with people, she said. Listen, negotiate, be respectful. “We’re all neighbors.”
Why run for office? “Because we want the best for the town,” she said. Volunteers are key to process and progress and town leaders shouldn’t make it so hard.
“I come here because I love our town and want to make it better,” Sprague said.
Wallace picked up the thread, noting public discontent with the current board that she shares. “Clearly, there’s a feeling (the board) is not functioning as well as it could” she said, and townspeople view their behavior as non-collaborative and “acrimonious.”
Wallace said she can work with folks even if she doesn’t agree with them, to do what’s best for the town. And boards should work together rather than compete with each other.
Sprague acknowledged important issues get “acrimonious” sometimes, but that doesn’t mean diversity should be squelched. “As a community, we need to pull together, get along,” she said. She cited boards on which she’s served wherein other members ignore voices they don’t want to hear. “If you don’t agree, nobody listens,” she said. “We don’t want that.”
She takes her run for selectman seriously, Sprague went on. “It’s not a game, it’s way too important,” she said. “I have a passion to make things better!”
Passion, but not as much experience as Wallace, who has served on many town boards and has been involved in just about everything. “She knows where the bodies are buried,” Sprague said. “I’m here to try a new approach.”
Wallace said she prefers not to “personalize” issues, but she decried the recent flap over appointments to the Historical Commission that resulted in resignations and in which the selectmen played a central role they perhaps shouldn’t have.
As one of the commissioners herself, Sprague gave a first-hand account. The gist of it was that the chairman was trying to drum up volunteers, people filled out applications and some were turned away.
The selectmen, meanwhile, made appointments. “That’s where it all started,” she said.
Noting there are always different sides to a story, she told hers. The broad brush version is that the commission got into trouble by trying to be exclusive rather than inclusive.
She favors diversity of ideas. “If we expect carbon copies, we won’t get the best,” she said.
The first question from the floor was about taxes.
Citing a projected 24 to 30 percent increase in property taxes over the next eight years, John Rizzo asked Wallace what she would do as a selectman to find financially beneficial solutions to the town’s problems and ease the burden on homeowners.
“I’m concerned,” he said. “How would you save me money as a taxpayer?”
“My information came from the Finance and Capital Plan and Investment committees,” Wallace answered. She said the projections are based on state law and limits of Proposition 2 1/2.
In her view, tax increases are justified because it’s necessary.
“How do you control it?” she asked, rhetorically. “Layoffs.” Teachers, DPW workers and other town employees would lose their jobs. “Ninety percent” of local revenue raised by taxation goes to the operating budget, Wallace said.
“We function together,” she continued, citing the town’s 95 percent residential tax base.
Sprague said the town could be prudent as well as operational.
“We need to look carefully at how we spent our money,” she said.
Town buildings, for example. Eight people work at town hall and visitor traffic during business hours is about 25 people a day. Yet there’s a plan to spend $4 million to renovate the building, with another pending request for $5 million to renovate Hildreth House and no resolution yet on re-use of the old library.
“We must be conscious of how hard people work” in these tough economic times, Sprague said. “We can’t simply keep raising taxes but must live within our means.”
Even in an affluent town, taxes hurt. “Not everyone in town is wealthy,” she said.
Wallace disagreed that town projects are fueling tax hikes. Based on projections, the average property tax bill in the year 2020 will be $10,400 without the proposed building projects. With them, it would be $10,800. The bulk of the bill pays for operating the town. Cut that amount and you lose services, people, things the town needs, she said.
Stu Sklar asked the candidates if they’d consider a town-based income tax to keep property taxes in line. As a member of the Suburban Coalition, that’s one of the initiatives some member communities, such as Concord, have been looking into, he said.
Sprague said no. “I’m not in favor of a town income tax,” she said.
Wallace said the idea might be worth exploring. “Concord is innovative. It may be helpful to look at,” she said. But people would need to understand that any tax-relief program that benefits some people would be balanced out by added costs to others. Candidate profiles
Wallace, a graduate of Wheaton College, where she majored in government, has a professional background that features 13 years as a grant manager for a national conservation foundation.
Civic activities in town include membership on the Conservation Commission, the Housing Partnership, Master Plan and Town Center Planning Committees, 10 years on the Planning Board and 12 years as a selectman.
A founding trustee of the Harvard Municipal Affordable Housing Trust, she also served on the Municipal Building Committee.
Other organizations listed on her active civic resume include the League of Women Voters, the Congregational Church, Nashua River Watershed Association, currently as president of the board of directors; trustee on the Harvard Conservation Trust and past director of Freedom’s Way Heritage Association.
Currently, Wallace co-chairs the Council on Aging and serves as liaison to the Municipal Building Committee. She is also a member of the Master Plan Steering Committee.
Rhonda Sprague is a graduate of the Syracuse General School of Nursing, has been a licensed real estate agent in Massachusetts for 20 years and is currently owner/broker of the Harvard Realty Company.
Her professional resume also lists referral management for the Fallon Community Health Plan and the Harvard Secretarial Service.
She has served on the Harvard Historical Commission and Community Preservation Committee. Continuing her civic resume, she has been a Cub Scout and Brownie leader, Harvard Athletic Association Coach and CYC advisor.