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Skip The Development Quagmire

February 26, 2017 : Banker & Tradesman, by Christopher R. Vaccaro

One-Stop Permitting In Devens Is A Developer’s Dream Come True

The local permitting process in Massachusetts can be challenging to developers. Before pushing a shovel into the ground, they must wade through a quagmire of boards of appeal, planning boards, conservation commissions and boards of health, all while trying to appease hostile abutters. The resulting delays are discouraging and expensive. If one could imagine a perfect world where all local permits are quickly obtainable from a single commission, Devens would be as close to that world as possible.

When the U.S. Defense Department announced the closure of the Fort Devens Military Reservation in 1991, state and local government feared economic depression and blight if the base could not be successfully repurposed. To address this problem, the legislature passed Chapter 498 of the Acts of 1993, which established a blueprint for the 4,400-acre “Devens Regional Enterprise Zone,” commonly referred to as “Devens.” Although Devens remains within the municipal boundaries of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley, as a practical matter Devens operates as a company town, with MassDevelopment as its proprietor.

MassDevelopment acquired Devens from the Defense Department shortly after adoption of Chapter 498, and implemented a 40-year reuse plan for the former military base with input from the host towns. The plan called for creating 8.5 million square feet of commercial space providing 7,000 jobs, up to 282 dwelling units and reserving 1,300 acres for recreation and conservation. MassDevelopment has exclusive responsibility for the maintenance and development of Devens, with the towns of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley reserving veto power over substantial revisions to the reuse plan.

Chapter 498 requires that a permanent government structure be proposed for Devens in 2033. This structure may involve incorporating Devens as a separate municipality (such as when Lawrence was created from neighboring towns in the 19th century), or dividing Devens among its host towns.

Lettuce Has Success

From a permitting perspective, the most important agency in Devens is the 12-member Devens Enterprise Commission. Each host town nominates two members to the commission, subject to the governor’s approval. The governor appoints the remaining six members, three of whom must reside in the Devens region, but no two of whom can reside in the same town. The commission is responsible for administering and enforcing zoning, subdivision control, sanitation, historic preservation and alcoholic beverage control regulations, thus combining the roles of a special permit granting authority, planning board, zoning board of appeal, board of health, historical commission and licensing board into a single agency. The commission strives to process development applications within 75 days. One-stop shopping for permits is reality in Devens.

Results within the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone have been encouraging. Over 5.5 million square feet of commercial space have been built, employing nearly 5,000 people. Drug manufacturer Bristol-Myers Squibb has committed heavily to Devens, having opened a biologics facility there in 2009, which it continues to expand. WGL Energy Systems activated a 3.2 megawatt solar energy facility last year, generating clean energy for local businesses. MassDevelopment has attracted a healthy mix of businesses, nonprofits and governmental agencies to Devens.

Little Leaf Farms is an innovative agricultural business that recently opened in Devens. It acquired a 14-acre site from MassDevelopment and built a 3-acre hydroponic greenhouse to grow leafy vegetables using advanced systems that minimize the need for manual labor. MassDevelopment financed the project with a $4.5 million loan. The greenhouse was completed last year, and Little Leaf Farms now sells locally grown, pesticide-free lettuce in area supermarkets. The project is a noteworthy combination of sustainable agriculture and technology.

Devens is more focused on attracting businesses than residents. The Devens reuse plan limits dwelling units to 282. As of 2015, 153 dwelling units have been completed in Devens, with plans for another 124. Under a contract negotiated by MassDevelopment, Devens students may enroll in Harvard’s public schools. Public transportation is available from weekday shuttle buses connecting Devens to Boston and Fitchburg, and from the MBTA’s Fitchburg commuter rail line, which stops in Ayer and Shirley.

Devens offers a streamlined regulatory system designed to promote economic growth. Its success serves as a model for redevelopment of other underutilized sites in the commonwealth and elsewhere.

Christopher R. Vaccaro is a partner at Dalton & Finegold in Andover.