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Devens Project Dies With Voters’ Rejection in Ayer and Harvard

March 29, 2012 : The Lowell Sun, by Hiroko Sato

Lights won’t be back on anytime soon inside the abandoned former Army barracks in Devens’ Vicksburg Square.

After months of debate over a Boston developer’s $83 million plan to convert the historic yet decrepit barracks into 246 units of affordable apartments for seniors and veterans, Ayer and Harvard voters rejected the project at their special Town Meetings last night, effectively negating Shirley’s support for it. A slew of zoning amendments proposed to turn the housing project into a reality failed 227-108 in Ayer, where voters cast secret ballots.

Harvard residents, who voted with a show of hands, also rejected the proposal by an estimated 2-1 margin.

Shirley passed the proposal 104-41. The amendments package required a majority vote in each of all three towns that participated in Super Town Meeting – Ayer, Harvard and Shirley – that have a say over zoning issues concerning Devens – in order to pass.

Some Ayer voters said they voted against the project because they could not determine its potential impact on the town until they learn if Devens will become its own town or become part of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley again.

“It’s like putting the cart before the horse,” said Hal Coyle of Ayer, who was opposed.

Harvard resident Susan Hanson, who was also opposed, said the number of tenants and students to live at the square as well as the projected 15 percent to 20 percent turnover rate was “kind of frightening.”

“Tonight’s outcome is unfortunate, as we are confident this plan would have been beneficial to Devens and its neighbors, and would have restored an important historical asset for Massachusetts,” Jim Keefe, president of Trinity Financial, which had planned to create the housing, said in a statement issued after the votes. “We are very grateful to all the residents of Ayer, Devens, Harvard and Shirley who supported this plan,” Keefe added.

But, Jones said, she was also frustrated with the procedural confusion at the Ayer Town Meeting, which kept residents from debating the project, leaving many of them upset.

Richard Murphy, of Ayer, agreed. “The moderator should have reconsidered his decision” to have the residents vote on the matter only 15 minutes into the meeting.”

“I’m embarrassed that all the efforts (of supporters preparing for discussions) have gone into this,” said Ayer Planning Board member Alene Reich, who has pushed for the development.

The Super Town Meeting’s rejection is déjà vu for MassDevelopment, which had unsuccessfully proposed a 350-unit condo-and-rental-mix redevelopment for Vicksburg Square by an unidentified developer in 2009. The affordable housing project by Trinity – which MassDevelopment selected in 2010 through a request-for-proposals process – was its second attempt at redeveloping Vicksburg Square.

The project had excited many residents who believed that the apartment complex with 600 new tenants would generate much-needed foot traffic to the languishing West Main Street business district in Ayer and other local businesses. They have also welcomed it as an opportunity to honor those who served for the country by providing them with affordable housing and preserving the deteriorating landmark in the former Army fort community of Devens.

Critics argued, however, tenants of low-income units – which would make up 80 percent of the development – would have too little disposable income to benefit local businesses.

Harvard’s Devens Economic Analysis Team had warned that school spending to educate students from Vicksburg Square would exceed tax revenues from the development. Additional municipal services required would drain town budgets should Devens ever become part of the three towns again, the DEAT has said. Some Harvard selectmen and the Ayer and Shirley finance committees have agreed with the DEAT’s views and objected to Trinity’s proposal.

Some parents also opposed the development, saying additional students could overwhelm the Harvard Public Schools, prompting Devens to start sending incoming students elsewhere.

Opposition mostly came from Ayer and Harvard as the majority of Vicksburg Square falls on Ayer’s traditional territory and the rest in Harvard’s. There was no proposed unit that would have belonged to Shirley under the tri-town Devens disposition scenario. Supporters have said the creation of the affordable housing at Vicksburg Square would help these towns because both are trying to meet the state’s requirement to keep at least 10 percent of the entire housing stock in the community affordable. Others said the availability of affordable units in Devens could saturate the regional rental market, discouraging developers to build such housing in Ayer or Harvard.

In the end, the question about whether Vicksburg Square would ever belong to Ayer and Harvard became the deciding factor in voting on Trinity’s project, some Ayer residents said.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about it,” said Christopher Hillman of Ayer.

Coyle said all the projected impacts remain hypothetical.

“What I want to see is somebody decide on Devens,” Coyle said.

“It wasn’t surprising,” Karen Januskiewicz, of Ayer, said of the town’s rejection of the development with a 2-1 ratio, saying the fate of Devens must be decided first before such a housing project is proposed.

In Shirley, some residents said they were concerned about having so many rental units at the square.

“I have issues with them all being rental units. Why can’t some of them be units you could buy?” Shirley resident Paul Wilson said.

Katina Caraganis of the Sentinel & Enterprise and Mary Arata of Nashoba Publishing contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2012 The Lowell Sun.