Devens Seeks Town Identity
February 13, 2011 : The Lowell Sun, by Chris Camire
A quaint center is accented by a gas station, a bank, coffee shop, convenience store, a gym and a hair salon. The rolling hills and tree-lined streets create the feel of a sleepy college campus.
A snapshot of small-town America.
What sets Devens apart in Massachusetts is that it is neither city nor town. There is a renewed urgency to change that.
Last month, a group of Devens residents filed a citizen’s petition with state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, for Devens to become a legally incorporated town. Efforts to make Devens the state’s 352nd town failed on the local level in 2006, and these residents say a legislative solution could be their final option.
“We don’t know where this is going to go, but we at least hope it draws attention to the situation we’re in,” said Tom Kinch, a member of the Devens Committee, a five-member board elected by the roughly 100 homeowners and renters who live permanently at Devens.
The Devens story dates to 1917, when the U.S. Army’s New England headquarters was established. Land was taken from Ayer, Harvard and Shirley to carve out Fort Devens, named for a Civil War general and lawyer.
The military announced in 1991 that it would close Fort Devens, and the base officially shut down in 1996. The community was turned over to MassDevelopment, a quasi-public economic development and real-estate agency.
MassDevelopment was tasked with redeveloping Devens. A state law, known as Chapter 49B, gave the agency control over the land until 2033, when the state can opt to relinquish control.
MassDevelopment quickly got to work. It transformed vacant military housing into residential homes. It attracted major businesses to the area, including pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. And it contracted police, public works and fire departments.
Devens turned into a vibrant community much quicker than anyone expected when the 2033 date was established. Some residents do not want to wait another 22 years before they control their community.
“The legislators who were drafting the legislation at the time felt that it was a 40-year process to redevelop the former military base,” said Meg Delorier, a spokeswoman for MassDevelopment. “It moved faster than anyone anticipated.”
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