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Draft warrant surfaces for Shirley Village Growth District

MRPC map
Draft warrant surfaces for Shirley Village Growth District

DEVENS – The proposed Shirley Village Growth District (SVGD) is located within the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ). The Town of Shirley purchased several acres from the state ten years ago and built its Town Hall, library, middle school and police department within the DREZ.

Totaling 44 acres in all, the proposed district is one of several development areas being studied for Shirley by the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission (MRPC). The land lies within the DREZ and within Shirley’s historical jurisdictional bounds, though the land is now managed by state agency MassDevelopment.

MRPC planners briefed the Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS) on Oct. 25 regarding a potential move to rezone the district to allow commercial, retail and residential uses.

MRPC Planner Eric Smith said the 1994 Devens Reuse Plan outlines the district but does not include residential uses which have been flagged as a town need in recent years following brainstorming sessions hosted by the Shirley Economic Development Committee. The Reuse Plan dates back to the time of the 1996 decommissioning of the former Fort Devens Army base.

A MassDevelopment-financed a study suggests the zone could support 25,400 to 42,400 square feet of retail space, and another 20,000 to 30,000 square feet of residential development.

To rezone the land, Ayer, Harvard and Shirley Town Meetings must all vote “yes” during a simultaneously-held “Super Town Meeting.” MRPC planners handed out a ‘Sample Warrant’ which discussed allowing multifamily and elderly residential uses and a separate 100 unit “cap” for the district alone. Currently, the entire DREZ is subject to a 282 housing unit cap.

Smith said the emphasis would be on multifamily, instead of single-family, housing. Smith cited a 2005 Westminster study which he said proved that multifamily housing generates “significantly less [school aged children] than 3-4 bedroom single family homes.”

Devens’ school-aged children are currently educated under a MassDevelopment contract with the Harvard School District. Smith said, “Shirley participants were concerned if the kids would come back to Shirley at some point in time. That’s why that issue came up.”

“Shirley is not looking to move forward,” at this time, assured Shirley JBOS representative and former selectman Rico Cappucci, who serves on the Shirley Economic Development Committee aside JBOS legal counsel Ernest Hyde. “We don’t want to rock the boat.”

Cappucci said the town would not want to proceed down the path to a Super Town Meeting without ensuring the votes were there. The two most recent Super Town Meetings driven by MassDevelopment in both 2009 and 2012 revolved around the rezoning of the languishing Vicksburg Square Innovation and Technology campus into a multifamily housing complex.

Cappucci said Shirley hopes to avoid the “embarrassment” of having its neighbors “say no” to a zoning change.

Devens Committee member Phil Crosby said the “elephant in the room” is the uncertainty over what entity will assume final jurisdiction over the DREZ – MassDevelopment, one or more town, whether the DREZ will become its own town, or some other outcome. Crosby co-sponsored a citizen’s petition seeking the creation of a town of ‘Devens.’

Crosby said Shirley’s planning suggests “this is ours,” while Ayer voters have twice passed initiatives to resume jurisdiction of Ayer lands within the DREZ. Crosby said Harvard remains “disinterested” at the moment.

Crosby feared “tearing apart” the DREZ, where pieces would be left to MassDevelopment’s management. “We’d be a ward of the state forever.”

“We’re listening to your opinion,” said Cappucci. “We’ve done what we had to do. We put it on the table. Shirley wants to know what Ayer and Harvard think.”

Without clear tri-town support, the concept “may not get off the drawing board,” said Cappucci.

Shirley is also studying other development zones in Shirley with MRPC’s technical assistance. “We’re not all over the playing field,” said Cappucci. “We have specific locations we’re having them look at.”

“I can’t speak for the committee,” said Cappucci. However, Cappucci ventured to guess the town may wish to prioritize development on Lancaster Road “because we do have a company looking to come into Shirley.”

“Shirley’s requested the most projects of our 22 towns,” said Smith. “I give them credit for applying to our program.”

Smith said special presentations are planned for Ayer and Harvard to seek input about the Shirley Village Growth District. A final MRPC report will be filed with Shirley and the state, as required under the enabling District Local Technical Assistance (DLTA) grant program.

MassDevelopment EVP for Devens Operations George Ramirez said there has been “some land swap” talk with Shirley towards the end of a village growth district. “I’m not sure where that stands today. We’d be happy to talk.”

“There were no determinations made as to who would get that land,” said Hyde. “We’d love to have it. But it was made clear to us that there are no determinations made at that point.”

“The purpose of the plan we put together here- the development plan -was to recommend to MassDevelopment ‘If we had our druthers, this is what we’d like to see there,” said Hyde.

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