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Ayer-Devens symposium offers historic view, charts future of Devens

  • The Ayer-Devens bus tour began at historic Vicksburg Square, where...

    The Ayer-Devens bus tour began at historic Vicksburg Square, where a complex of long-empty but still handsome brick buildings dating to the early days of Fort Devens await their next useful purpose. (M.E. Jones/Nashoba Valley Voice)

  • Those on the Ayer-Devens bus tour listen to Ayer Select...

    Those on the Ayer-Devens bus tour listen to Ayer Select Board Chair Jannis Livingston speak on Devens along Auman Street. (M.E. Jones/Nashoba Valley Voice)

  • Day one of a two-day symposium on Ayer and Devens...

    Day one of a two-day symposium on Ayer and Devens featured a bus tour of Ayer-owned land in Devens, including this stop on Auman Street and near Bates Street. Both within the town’s historic boundaries, children on these two streets may attend public school in Harvard, per a contract with MassDevelopment that applies to all Devens residents, but their parents vote in Ayer, where they are eligible to vote in town, state and federal elections and at town meetings. (M.E. Jones/Nashoba Valley Voice)

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AYER — During a recent two-day symposium at Town Hall that included a bus tour of Ayer-owned land in Devens, Community and Economic Director Alan Manoian set the stage with a vivid description of the town’s historic ties to the former military base.

“The arrival of Camp Devens in 1917 didn’t create the town of Ayer,” Manoian said. “The railroad did that.”

But its trajectory changed, more so when the camp became Fort Devens, a permanent Army base occupying some 4,000 acres that once belonged to Ayer and its neighbors, Harvard and Shirley.

Now a civilian community managed by MassDevelopment, Devens has come a long way; but its future is uncertain.

The current setup, codified in Massachusetts law — Chapter 498, enacted in 1996 — is set to end in 2033. Per the statute, the state expects a report — or reports — from stakeholders, including what they want to take away when Devens’ disposition is decided.

Possible scenarios could include a reconfiguration of boundaries, or even a reversion to pre-World War I borders, returning jurisdiction to the respective towns.

With Ayer’s substantial stake in Devens at issue, the symposium was designed to start that conversation.

Ayer-Devens Biopic

Manoian’s nuanced narrative explained how the town lost control of the land that became Devens and how the Army’s arrival and continued presence there impacted the town’s character.

“By the 1890s, Ayer was becoming a nice, New England town,” Manoian said. It was a residential community, one with a tree-lined Main Street loaded with bustling bicycles.

Then came rumors about troop mobilization.

With plenty of open, contiguous land, suited to the purpose, Ayer was chosen. Deals were struck and leases suspended, Manoian said.

Over 100 landowners sold or leased their farms and fields to the government, which then had access to sweeping tracts of land on which to build the camp, rolling over town boundaries in the process. Like it or not, the Army had come to town.

“It forever changed this place,” Manoian said. “Picture it: 250,000 people descended on Ayer in the summer of 1917.”

Crowds of soldiers and camp visitors packed Main Street — even the train station, not officially part of the camp, was commandeered by the Army. Now picture the for itself: 20,000 soldiers, young, single men, warriors-in-training, flocking into the town on Saturday nights. Clubs flourished. Brawls were common. Parents warned their teenagers to stay off the streets after dark.

“Every entrance into Devens came through Ayer,” Manoian continued. “But oh, the money … the business!”

Not everything was bad: Devens soldiers married local girls, federal dollars beefed up infrastructure and built schools. There were “epic parades,” while newcomers brought “ethnic and cultural diversity,” Manoian said. Churches “overflowed” on Sundays.

The town also saw a population and housing boom as military families not housed on base sought apartments in town.

“Rentals became the rage,” Manoian said. “People moved in from all over.”

The town’s wastewater system was expanded. Gas stations cropped up “everywhere,” according to Manoian, with underground tanks “all over the place.” All this in “our charming little town” with a total acreage of less than 10 square miles, Devens included.

Devens Enterprise Commission Environmental Planner Neil Angus described a different Devens, the Devens of today: re-developed, a work still in progress. The two agencies in charge of Devens, MassDevelopment and the DEC are separate entities that work together, he said.

“So here we are, nearly 30 years in,” Angus said. “And, as Alan said, there were huge economic impacts on the region” as he noted that the base’s closure “created concerns.”

The slide show Angus had prepared included a map of the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone designated for business development. Any proposed zoning changes in that area must be approved by voters in the three towns.

Dating to 1993, the DREZ delineates the acreage each town controlled before the Army’s take-over.

Ayer’s 1,000 acres include half of the old “North Post,” Angus said; the Army enclave, National Guard outpost and a Federal medical facility.

Angus also noted that, today, Devens is home to some 900 residents and over 100 businesses, employing 6,000 people. Citing a 2020 UMass study, Angus said Devens had added over $3.8 billion to the state economy, with 40 percent of its jobs in manufacturing.

Social services in Devens include senior and veterans priority housing, affordable housing and more. There is conservation land, too: protected open space, walking paths and the Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge.

As it has continued to grow, Angus also noted that “sustainability” has been key.

Angus capped his litany of notable places in Devens with historic Vicksburg Square. “There’s lots of potential there,” he said. Built in 1927, the imposing brick structures were permanent barracks for soldiers garrisoned at Fort Devens, a dramatic upgrade from the hastily constructed, wood and tar-paper barracks that came before.

Standing in front of an iconic cluster of buildings overlooking Rogers Field, Manoian told the tour that they were less like barracks and more like dormitories. And they were permanent, representing the Army’s evolving, “respectful” view of its soldiers.

The brick colonials and townhouses, small brick bungalows and neat wood-frame ranches in Devens’ older residential neighborhoods were also a venture into new territory for the Army. Built as “base housing” for soldiers with families, they are now private homes, refurbished and sold after the base closed. The neighborhood is reminiscent of another time; houses lined with trees, sidewalks and small, square front yards, but no driveways — at least not out front; conforming to the original base layout and current Devens zoning, driveways are behind the houses, accessed via service roads.

While the private residences are compact, mostly one-storied, the Vicksburg Square buildings are large, multi-storied and big enough for almost any use, commercial or residential. Abandoned, for now, after several failed efforts to re-zone and re-purpose the area, these buildings need significant work, inside and out, but, as Manoian pointed out, they are still beautiful buildings, built to last.

During his presentation, Angus also addressed many contaminated areas in Devens and made not that those contaminations have been addressed. He pointed to new water wells and wastewater plant upgrades, with “emergency connections” for the ongoing West Main Street project in Ayer.

“There’s a lot going on,” he said.

It was on the topic of contamination that a woman stood to speak. As Manoian mused about the possibilities for the river-front land, Marion Stoddart, the noted activist and community leader whose work in the 1960s to rescue and restore the polluted Nashua River led to the Clean Water Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1965, urged them to keep the land wild and scenic.

“In 1969, this was one of America’s most polluted rivers,” Stoddart said. “It could happen again.”

Another activist, Laurie Nehring of People of Ayer Concerned about the Environment, spoke up. While Manoian had envisioned future potential above ground, Nehring made note of unseen issues, explaining how an old dry well on the site used to dump cleaning chemicals years ago had created a “contamination plume” in the underground aquifer.

Clean-up efforts unintentionally added further pollutants, including high levels of arsenic, which Nehring said was a “serious” problem. “Do we (the town) want to take on a super fund site?” she asked.

Manoian said there would be many questions as pre-disposition planning continues and that he foresaw further tours. He also said it would be great to have some youthful input, hoping next time to see some “young people” on the bus.