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By Jon Bishop

HARVARD — Harvard is in the process of developing its master plan, and so, like Ayer and Shirley, it must ask: What to do with the former Fort Devens?

On Saturday, the town held a forum at the Center on the Common to begin getting answers.

“What we’re going to do here today is go through a Devens framework,” said Joe Hutchinson, a member of the Master Plan Steering Committee, noting that the forum was meant as a tool for the town as it faces decisions on Devens.

“This master plan is going to address Devens, whereas others (only) touched on it,” he said.

RKG Associates’ Judi Barrett, the lead consultant for the master plan update, reminded the audience that Devens is an enterprise zone, and it is primarily non-residential. There are over 90 business and organizations and over 4,000 jobs, she said. About 60 percent of the land lies within Harvard.

After the base closure in 1996, Devens became an enterprise zone because the local host communities lacked the capacity to manage redevelopment, she said. It needed significant public investment.

Also, the economic impact of the base closure extended far beyond the borders of Harvard, Ayer, and Shirley, she said.

“The reuse plan … was about job creation,” she said. “This is a state economic development initiative.”

But once people started to reside in Devens, the conversation started to change, Barrett said.

Its status presents “an interesting set of legal questions,” she said.

As of now, MassDevelopment oversees Devens, but that will likely end when Chapter 498, the statute covering the redevelopment, expires in 2033. After that, MassDevelopment and others will make a recommendation about permanent government in Devens.

So she posted these questions: could Harvard reunite with Devens and benefit? Could it, for instance, address the town’s needs, such as housing, economic, open space, transportation, and so on? What would the relationship look like? Or should it remain distinct entity?

Residents provided a variety of answers.

“Right now, Devens feels very separate from the town,” Lucas Makosky said. “It’s very difficult to answer that question, because it’s so separate.”

Deb Thomson agreed.

“It’s hard to do this analysis without determining what happens to Devens,” she said.

Tim Clark called Devens “a very unusual area,” and he noted that Harvard is low-density, while Devens has commercial and industrial areas. You have to look at these considerations, he said.

SusanMary Redinger, Chairwoman of the School Committee, said she doesn’t know if Harvard can meet the capacity of required senior housing.

“I think Devens offers an opportunity to explore” different types of housing, she said.

But, like Makosky, she said there is a separateness.

“No one’s interested in having a divided housing stock,” she said. “How do you combine it so it feels like one town?”

Part of that has to do with transportation. Harvard currently has no direct access to Devens. Once the town decides what it wants to do with Devens as a whole, “access and transportation would follow,” said Paul Green.

It would also clear up some biases, he said.

“(The lack of access) has affected the whole way the town thinks about Devens,” he said. “It’s very easy to get into an us versus them situation with Devens,” adding that “we have to find ways as people to develop our human connections.”

Harvard also needs money, said Michelle Catalina, a member of the Planning Board.

“We’re either going to have to get really creative…or we’ll have to convince (residents) that we need to change the way (Harvard) looks,” she said. “This is really difficult for us.”

Devens, she said, “could make a nice complement for us.”

But adding Devens would, as Hutchinson noted, change Harvard’s “governance model.”

Which is why some thought it would be best to seek a kind of partnership.

“When you’re talking about economic development, the prime investor is the state,” Clark said. Harvard, if it oversaw Devens, would, “because of the complexity,” have to get a knowledgeable partner.

Green said he has worked on Devens planning for a number of years, and one of the models he and others looked at was the Myles Standish Industrial Park.

Others, however, thought it would be best to allow Devens to stay separate.

If we let Devens become a separate entity, we’ll be able to focus on Harvard, and we’ll be a lot better for our future, said Jim DeZutter.

“Devens is its own entity, and we are our own entity,” he said, and Harvard can make progress once that is recognized.

“The sooner we cut that line from Devens, the better off we’re going to be,” he said.

But still there is the issue of revenue, said Kara McGuire Minar, the Chairwoman of the Planning Board. So it would be hard to just give up Devens.

All of these questions will remain as the master planning process continues and as 2033 approaches.

“You need to think about what is the long-term obligation of your town,” Barrett said.

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