By Mary E. Arata
Their petition was filed
a year ago by State Senator Jamie Eldridge. The residents hope to secure a
legislative fix to budge the log-jam on the disposition of the 4,400 acre DREZ
- part of the larger 9,000 acre Fort Devens Army encampment from 1917 until the
Army decommissioned those lands in 1995 and sold the DREZ to the state. The
remaining 5,000 acre
Eldridge previously chaired the same committee. The Acton Democrat provided introductory comments.
There hasn't been a new
But the roughly 225 DREZ residents are divided by Harvard, Ayer and Shirley political bounds. Historically, Harvard controlled the largest swath of the DREZ (61 percent or 2,700 acres), Ayer had the second largest chunk (23 percent or 1,000 acres) and Shirley the least (16 percent or 700 acres.). DREZ residents vote within "their" respective towns.
DREZ residents elect a Devens Committee, but the panel is not a true Board of Selectmen empowered to govern the DREZ. MassDevelopment and the gubernatorial-appointed Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC) together most municipal;-style roles. MassDevelopment also sets the DREZ property tax rate.
For "town," state and national elections, DREZ residents vote in Ayer, Harvard and Shirley.
held "Super Town Meetings" are required before amendments can be made
to the Devens Reuse Plan, DREZ zoning and the DREZ -creating law - Chapter 498
of the Acts of 1993. Ayer and Harvard voters rejected the creation of a Town of
A cadre of Devens residents- many members of the Devens Committee - entered their plea for political independence.
Since 2001, Devens Committee member Rick Bernklow has lived in the 'DREZ,' "That's the technical name of where we live.... We have a lot of acronyms, names, people..."
Commercial and industrial development has blossomed, thanks to the DEC's one-stop permitting powers. "It's a primary reason for Bristol-Myers Squibb's half a billion dollars worth of investment" in the DREZ.
But Bernklow bucked the towns' "veto power" over changes to the 282 DREZ housing unit cap, the Reuse Plan and Chapter 498. The Reuse Plan states 25 percent of DREZ housing will be affordable. "forever. No town in the commonwealth is held to that standard."
Devens Committee member
Tom Kinch has lived within the DREZ since 2003. He
channeled the "certain level of frustration" with the amendment
"Our position is fairly clear- we think the current Reuse Plan and law is a little outdated," said Kinch. "The law basically gives us very little chance to change that plan."
As $40 million co-investors in the DREZ, Kinch said DREZ homeowners are stakeholders in Devens success.
"Our request is basically a simple one - we'd like to see a change in the way the Reuse Plan is altered," said Kinch. "Help us out of this quandary."
Devens Committee Chairman Jim Geller has lived within the DREZ since 2006. "The towns view Devens through a single lens - will taking back those former lands help them financially or hurt them? They want guarantees. They do not want doubt." Geller said the towns' preference is for industry without residents or "children to educate" which jacks up expenses, Geller said.
It will take "21 years from now unless you intervene" said Geller of the 2033 disposition review timetable. "Set us on a path to become our own town, or at the very least, remove the veto power each of these towns has over Devens."
State Rep. Tim Madden of
"Like any other town," said Bernklow. "It's 282 today," said Kinch. "We think it can support much more than that."
State Rep. Cleon Turner of Dennis asked if the 'Super Town Meetings' were simultaneous. Geller said yes and that "each town must approve. One town not approving [changes] kills the bill."
"What is the opposition from the other towns at Town Meeting," asked Madden.
"WOW," said Kinch, prompting laughter. Kinch said fired off often-mentioned competing town concerns - affordable housing, Devens disposition, aversion to changing the Devens Reuse Plan and law, and that "decisions are being made now that may impact the towns in 2033."
"Was your answer on opposing housing there, or creating a town in and of itself?"asked Turner.
"Yes," answered Kinch. "Both."
Devens Committee member Phil Crosby has lived within the DREZ since 2002. Crosby said after the 2009 Vicksburg Square vote failed, Boston based Trinity Financial was tapped by MassDevelopment to pitch a new residential redevelopment plan to the towns for the 19-acre campus.
working very hard over past 18 months," said
turns 92 years old in May. He's lived within the DREZ since 2001. He
acknowledged any creation of the "Town of
Adding to the population count is job one - "a more reasonable goal - we hope to do that." Eisengren encouraged the legislators to read a submission called the "Devens Story" which provides a thumbnail of the history of the DREZ.
The closure of the bulk of the base "created a tremendous economic blow to Towns of Ayer, Harvrad and Shirley and the Commonwealth in its wisdom created a plan to redevelop it and bring Devens back."
MassDevelopment was given $200 million in bonding authority and a 40year window "to try to help the region. They created now over 80 companies that have a home on Devens which is a tremendous tax base that most towns would die over."
But there's 110 DREZ families "so things are out of proportion," said Eisengren. "So we're not looking at the long range disposition issues. We're asking what you can do to make this more successful. We're a very frustrated bunch of residents. We're playing taxes to everyone ...but we have no representation."
In addition to stripping the towns' veto power, Eisengren asked that the housing cap should be raised, citing an earlier report which surmised the DREZ could sustain 1,800 housing units.
Betty Barbadoro is married to Eisengren. She said some laws "end up hurting other people. Chapter 498 is that kind of law... Please amend this law. You have the power to change the flaw."
ONE OPPONENT SPEAKS
Frank Maxant, who is an Ayer selectman, was the sole person to testify Wednesday against the Devens township petition. Maxant noted that in the most recent Devens Committee election there were only eight ballots cast, re-electing Bernklow to his DC post.
Maxant suggested there were not enough engaged DREZ residents to fulfill governmental functions as a stand-alone municipality.
However Maxant said he feels the "general frustration" is not with the towns but in "dealing with MassDevelopment...The towns feel this frustration too."
Maxant said the local officials have "been kind of ignored and that has motivated the towns to go ahead and try to create our own proposal."
Maxant said he had asked former State Representative Robert Hargraves to floated draft legislation (a "very, very rough draft") past House counsel and has asked Eldridge to also review the language as to form on a measure that would ask the towns to decide whether or not they want to retake governmental jurisdiction according to the historical political bounds.
Maxant said his goal would be to "try to get as much public participation and buy-in as possible so that it will pass Town Meeting."
Harvard selectman Chairman Marie Sobalvarro was in the audience for another matter but observed the proceedings, as did MassDevelopment Land Entitlement Director Ed Starzec and the agency's legal counsel Lee Smith. Trinity Financial President James Keefe walked in on the closing moments of Maxant's testimony.
Before the hearing closed, DREZ resident Bartholomew Wacek arrived and spoke in favor of the legislation but first took aim at Maxant's "condescending" discussion about the number of DREZ voters who cast ballots for Bernklow in January.
Senator James Welch co-chairs the committee and warned Wacek against making personal attacks.
Wacek re-circled. "It's not illegal to be condescending or disrespectful, but when you have a system where one town has a veto over the people of another town, that condescension has real consequences."