2017 Devens Ballot Question
Should the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Harvard begin planning for and initiate discussions with appropriate parties with the goal of presenting a plan to the Town of Harvard voters to resume jurisdiction over the land which is part of Devens formerly under the jurisdiction of the Town of Harvard, provide services to the residents of such area, and collect property taxes?
This ballot question is not a vote for the Town of Harvard to resume jurisdiction over its historic portion of Devens. Rather, it is a non-binding referendum seeking direction from the town. A yes vote would direct the Board of Selectmen to develop and present a plan for future town approval to resume jurisdiction. A no vote would mean no action would be taken at this time.
The Ballot Question – Why Now?
At its annual retreat last spring, the Board of Selectmen agreed it was time to move forward with the question of resuming jurisdiction of Harvard’s lands within Devens. Before proceeding on this course, however, the Board agreed it needed a sense of the town and decided to place this question on the 2017 town election ballot as a non-binding referendum.
Similarly, the Planning Board’s multi-year process of developing a master plan included a substantial body of work focused specifically on Harvard and Devens. The 2016 Town of Harvard Master Plan called for the Board of Selectmen to evaluate the benefits and liabilities of resuming jurisdiction of the town’s historic lands on Devens. As Devens exists today, it has no locally-elected municipal government. The jurisdictional question is, at its core, the determination of the re-introduction of local government.
One of the goals set forth in Chapter 1, “Introduction, Vision and Goals”, of the Plan is that Harvard have a defined role in Devens. Chapter 9, “Devens”, contains a matrix which delineates how Devens could impact the seven elements of the Master Plan (Land Use, Natural Resources & Open Space, Population &Housing, Economy, Cultural Resources, Community Services & Facilities, and Circulation & Traffic) and actions the town would have to take should it resume jurisdiction of its historic lands. Chapter 11, “Action Plan”, presents a time line for the next 10 years suggesting a path the Board of Selectmen could take in its approach to the Devens question.
The Selectmen believe it is time to begin consideration of the permanent local or municipal government for Devens. While the Selectmen will need to work with our colleagues in Ayer and Shirley, as well as MassDevelopment, we believe the first step is for the town to agree on a preferred outcome. Key to this effort will be assessment of the impacts, benefits and challenges of return of jurisdiction. We intend this to be an open, transparent and public process and to engage all stakeholders, including the residents and businesses on Devens. Given the importance and magnitude of this endeavor, we believe it necessary to have the support of you, the voters.
This is the first of many steps on the path to resolving the future governance of Devens. And this is the first, of several opportunities for the town to vote on the Selectmen’s recommendations.
The onset of WWI saw the establishment of Camp Devens at the intersection of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley. Over the decades the Camp grew and developed into Fort Devens, in the process of which roughly 20% of Harvard was taken by the Army. In 1992 the Base Closure and Realignment Act (BRAC) called for the closure of Fort Devens. This precipitated the loss of nearly 4,000 civilian jobs, a significant economic impact on the surrounding towns, and the need for a redevelopment plan to convert the base to civilian use. In 1994 the towns of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley adopted the 1994 Devens Reuse Plan and Bylaws, and endorsed Chapter 498 which defined the mechanism for redevelopment of Devens by the state through the Massachusetts Land Bank – now MassDevelopment - in accordance with the Reuse Plan. A key provision of Chapter 498 was the suspension of the town’s jurisdiction over its lands within the base and, by the same token, suspension of the need to provide municipal services to this area, its businesses or residents and instead provided by MassDevelopment.
Section 23 of Chapter 498 essentially laid out a 40-year redevelopment window. It requires that on or before July 1, 2030 the towns initiate a study and that on or before July 1, 2033 they submit a report and plan, which has been approved by the 3 towns at a Super Town Meeting, for permanent local governance of Devens to the Legislature.
Over the last few years the BOS has had a committee, the Devens Economic Analysis Team, review and assess the economic health of the Harvard portion of Devens. While MassDevelopment had run a deficit during the initial period of redevelopment by investing in significant infrastructure upgrades and tax incentives to attract new businesses, over the last 5 years the operating deficit has been reduced and projections going forward indicate Devens can operate without a deficit – perhaps even a surplus. Furthermore, with most of the land on Devens sold and infrastructure upgrades complete, the justification for MassDevelopment to continue to manage Devens has decreased. And finally, with 120 units of new housing in the Grant Road neighborhood to be on line in the next few years, the resident population on Devens is about to double.
As MassDevelopment’s successful redevelopment of Devens in accordance with the Devens Reuse Plan nears completion, it is time for us, including our neighbors on Devens, to begin to address the next iteration of our towns and Devens.
Devens: The Devens Enterprise Zone and Joint Boards of Selectmen
The Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ) was established with the passage of the Devens Reuse Plan, Devens Zoning Bylaws and local acceptance of Chapter 498 of the Acts of 1993 by the town meetings of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley in December, 1994. Chapter 498 is the governing statute covering Devens’ redevelopment, designated Massachusetts Development Finance Agency (MassDevelopment) as the state's redevelopment agency and the Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC) as the permitting entity. According to Section 23 of Chapter 498, by July 1, 2033 the towns, MassDevelopment and the DEC must initiate a study concerning the permanent government structure for Devens and must submit its study and recommendation for such permanent governance to the Governor and legislature by July 1, 2033.
Although no town has exercised jurisdiction over the lands underlying Devens since the Army purchased the land in 1927, approximately 61% (2,700 acres) of the 4,400-acre DREZ is within the historic geographical boundaries of Harvard (representing approximately 20% fo Harvard), with the remaining 23% and 16% within the boundaries of Ayer and Shirley respectively. The Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC), which was established under Chapter 498, acts as the sole permitting agency for projects within the DREZ, combining the role of local planning boards, boards of health, conservation commissions and zoning boards of appeal.
The Boards of Selectmen of the Devens towns (Ayer, Harvard, Lancaster and Shirley) formed the Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS) in 1992 to provide a forum for addressing issues of mutual concern relating to the closure of Ft. Devens and subsequent redevelopment of Devens. By the December 1994 Memorandum of Understanding, the JBOS was designated the official advisory body to the state regarding issues of concern to the towns arising from MassDevelopment’s activities pursuant to Chapter 498. The same MOU created the Devens Advisory Committee to work with MassDevelopment on matters concerning the residents on Devens. The JBOS is currently comprised of the Boards of Selectmen of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley and meets jointly with the Devens Advisory Committee on matters of mutual concern.