HARVARD — Not for the first time, selectmen during a recent strategy session pondered whether to continue participating in Joint Boards of Selectmen.
Established as an advisory group to Mas Development when the state agency took over jurisdiction of Devens after the military base closed, JBOS looks somewhat different more than a decade later.
For awhile, the group disbanded, only to resurface again, its off and on history tracking MassDevelopment initiatives. For example, when MassDevelopment was eyeing the possibility of an early departure.
With a disposition time frame of up to 40 years, MassDevelopment proposed settling the question sooner.
While following mandates set by Chapter 498 — the legislation by which the agency governs Devens — and procedural guidelines in the Devens Reuse Plan, MassDevelopment drove the process via JBOS, which formed subgroups to study the issue and executive committee to review options and make recommendations.
The upshot was a short-list of scenarios for stakeholders to choose from and vote on. The plan the committee recommended, known as Scenario 2B, ultimately failed.
MassDevelopment reverted to business as usual. Rudderless, JBOS foundered. But if disposition was dead in the water for the time being, the notion that the three towns needed a forum to talk about Devens issues was not. Viewed as the obvious platform for such discussion, JBOS re-grouped.
Enter Vicksburg Square, a twice-tried and failed MassDevelopment initiative that called for amending Chapter 498.
The gist of it was the proposal required re-zoning the historic enclave whose once handsome, old brick buildings were vacant and deteriorating.
Again, JBOS played an active role.
But neither of the two separate attempts to re-develop Vicksburg Square mustered enough support — that is, a majority yes vote in all three towns via Super Town Meetings. The most recent proposal went down less than a year ago after a two-year effort by the developer, Trinity Financial, to make its case.
Shirley, which had no land in the Vicksburg Square area, said yes to both proposals. Harvard favored the first re-development proposal but not the second. Ayer said no to both proposals, first to a mixed development with a commercial component and then to an all-residential rental complex that included affordable units.
In the aftermath, all three selectmen boards discussed the purpose and purview of JBOS to determine if it was worth saving and what their level of participation should be, if any. At one point, they were asked to make a decision. In or out?
The gist of Harvard selectmen’s take at the time was that while they could see some value in staying on, it might not be enough to justify their time. Still, some members of the former board strongly urged perseverance, perhaps with a makeover.
Today, the re-configured JBOS set-up calls for monthly meetings with one selectman from each of the three towns or a designee, a representative from the Devens community and a seat at the table for MassDevelopment.
At their off-site powwow last week, the current board again pondered the JBOS question.
Is it a viable group? Any accomplishments? Despite structural changes that eased up attendance criteria, is JBOS viable? Even efforts to regionalize services seem to spark interest then fizzle.
“Is it worth it?” Selectman Ron Ricci asked.
Given sporadic attendance, lack of consensus and other signs of internal malaise, he said it might be better to go “direct to MassDevelopment” and/or Ayer and Shirley officials when Devens questions come up. After all, nobody has unlimited time and JBOS is one more obligation.
Town Administrator Tim Bragan recalled a moment of truth when the three towns’ boards were asked to “pony up” their town administrators to work together on a Devens initiative. Harvard said yes and Shirley was willing, but Ayer said no.
Selectman Marie Sobalvarro suggested it might be time to “walk away.”
Ricci favored a less final alternative. “Better to say it’s on hold,” he said, with meetings only when needed.
Johnson posed another option. “We see value, opportunities to share information, but for now, we (Harvard selectmen) may need to look within,” he said. That is, to work on town-centric visioning rather than try to map Devens’ future.
Perhaps JBOS could modify its model, hold quarterly rather than monthly meetings. “We’d report on where everybody’s at, update each other on various processes,” he said.
“Let’s be clear,” Ricci said. “This (JBOS) is not a decision-making body” that will speak to MassDevelopment with one voice.
Chairman Lucy Wallace offered food for further thought. Given that Shirley has less stake now in Devens decisions than the other two towns, why not consider turning the three-town process into a two-town process, plus the Devens community?
“What if Harvard and Ayer give up the lands west of the Nashua River to Shirley” and keep the rest of Devens, she asked.
If such a proposal were initiated, it would trigger the Super Town Meeting process, since Chapter 498 would have to be amended to make it happen.
“It’s worth thinking about,” Ricci said.
The question then becomes, how does the Devens community feel? Wallace continued. Particularly in terms of becoming a town.
Ricci said he didn’t think Devens residents’ town-building efforts were about land acquisition but about knowing where they stand as a community after MassDevelopment decamps, from governance, municipal services and property taxes to education.
As for JBOS, maybe it will lapse and reactivate when there’s a Super Town Meeting coming up, Ricci said. It seems like an agenda item for a public meeting later this summer, he posited.
Johnson jumped on the idea, wrapping the discussion. “Let’s go with that as a strategy,” he said, suggesting they design a “Devens summit” with a basic agenda and attendee list.