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Housing Makes Ample Sense for Towns Around Devens

March 27, 2012 : The Boston Globe, Editorial

The proposed redevelopment of an abandoned army barracks in Vicksburg Square in Devens is a good fit with the overall goal of creating a thriving commercial and residential center on the onetime army base in central Massachusetts. But the project can't go forward unless voters in all three of the former Fort Devens’s host towns – Harvard, Ayer, and Shirley – approve it in town meetings on Wednesday. Doing so would be in the interest of the towns and of the region as a whole.

The housing proposal makes sense at every level: a nice mix of 246 reasonably priced apartments for seniors, families with moderate incomes, and market-rate renters. The exterior of the historic building will be preserved. Veterans would get preference for many of the apartments. And voters can take comfort in knowing that the Boston-based developer, Trinity Financial, enjoys a strong reputation for high-quality work reflecting the concerns of local residents.

For good reason, leading town officials in Ayer and Shirley have expressed their approval for the project. But a majority of Harvard selectmen oppose it. Opponents raise the possibility that new families will place a strain on their budgets – at least come 2033, when Devens could revert back to the towns that provided the original land for the military property. But at that point, Harvard would also reap substantial tax benefits from the transformation of Devens from a shuttered base into a business park. The state finance agency MassDevelopment, which controls Devens, predicts that future commercial and industrial development will more than close any gap between the residential property taxes and the cost of educating students.

In 2009, Harvard voters approved a larger, less clearly defined housing proposal that was shot down by Ayer. But Harvard voters seem less inclined this time around to support a much better proposal. One issue might be that the current project is weighted more heavily toward people earning less than the area median income. But the success of businesses in and around Devens depends on attracting workers at a variety of income levels. Housing for hard-working families and veterans is precisely what the area needs.

Devens is poised for smart growth near a rail line and a base of industrial jobs. The property requires no additional utility infrastructure. And the surrounding schools are under capacity. Conditions on the development scene could hardly be better than in this case, and voters should approve the deal.

© Copyright 2012 The Boston Globe.