DEVENS - "He always respected everybody's opinion; he'd state his and listen to yours," said Tom Kinch, Chair of the Devens Committee. Kinch led a moment of silence at Thursday's Joint Boards of Selectmen meeting to honor the passing of friend and neighbor Robert "Bob" Eisengrein of Devens.
A New York native, Eisengrein was a graduate of both NY Polytech and MIT and an electrical engineer by trade. Eisengrein also served as a Keene, New Hampshire city councilor and a six-year New Hampshire state representative. Eisengrein was a Democratic activist who, in later years, rallied residents in both Acton and Devens where he lived.
In April 2012, Eisengrein was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Massachusetts Democratic Coalition. Eisengrein died Jan. 20 at 92 years old. A funeral for Eisengrein was held today at the Trinity Congregational Church of Concord.
Eisengrein and his wife, Bette Barbadoro, were among "the original settlers of Devens," said Kinch. The couple moved from Acton to Devens in 2001, five years after the Army closed its Fort Devens base and sold 4,400 acres to the state for redevelopment (now known as the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone, or DREZ).
The first post-closure DREZ resident, Armen Demerjian, called Eisengrein "the glue of the newly-forming Devens community."
"Bob was the personification of decency. If anybody needed anything and he could do it, he would never say no," said Demerjian. "From day one, he was a connected person."
Eisengrein was among the founding members of the Devens Committee. Present committee member Phil Crosby said Eisengrein worked to unite fellow Devens neighbors.
"He got here a year ahead of me when there were maybe just 50-70 people living on Devens," said Crosby. "As residents came in, he stimulated community gatherings. One of the first was a pot luck and BBQ party and disc golf between Walnut and Elm Streets."
Eisengrein and Barbadoro were active in the post-closure Devens Disposition Executive Board (DDEB).
The DDEB's work eventually led to the failed tri-town "2B" vote of Oct. 2006. Ayer and Harvard voters rejected the conversion of the DREZ into a town called Devens with outlying lands reverting to Ayer, Harvard and Shirley.
Under Chapter 498 of the Acts of 1993, all three towns must approve of DREZ zoning changes via the so-called "Super Town Meeting" process. The towns have failed to unite twice since (June 2009 and March 2012).
Eisengrein sought the elimination of the Super Town Meeting process on Jan. 25, 2012 before the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government. The committee was taking testimony on a 2011 citizens' petition filed by Crosby, Kinch and three other Devens Committee members for the conversion of the DREZ into a town called "Devens," forming the state's 352nd municipality.
Eisengrein didn't testify directly in favor of the petition, but did convey frustrations over the dangling Devens disposition dilemma, "We're playing taxes to everyone but we have no representation."
"I know the commonwealth doesn't like small towns to be created," said Eisengrein. "So we're saying we think there are several things you can do on a short range basis."
One change Eisengrein sought was the elimination of the Super Town Meeting process, calling it "ridiculous." Only Shirley has consistently voted 'yes' at Super Town Meeting.
"Will you consider modifying 498 to eliminate this veto power that the towns have?' asked Eisengrein. "We think the modification of that would provide us more a voice in what's happening. We're the ones who are invested here."
Eisengrein also sought the upward revision of the 282 unit DREZ housing cap, advising that Sasaki Associates of Watertown recommended up to 1,800 homes within the DREZ.
In May 2012, Eisengrein did voice support for the creation of a town of Devens when Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray visited for a meeting to discuss the fate of the Devens Reserve Forces Training Area (DRFTA). The 5,000 acre DRFTA survived the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) of 1990 which decommissioned the Fort Devens as an Army base in 1996.
In Jan. 2012, the Department of Defense announced a fresh BRAC effort would launch to identify $500 million in savings. Murray leads the governor's effort to document the economic importance of the Devens Reserve Forces Training Area and five other Baystate military installations. Eisengren asked if the unresolved DREZ disposition issue would harm the chances of survival for the reserve forces area.
Murray asked Eisengren a question of his own - do you want Devens to become a town?
"Yes, a good many residents would," said Eisengren. "That isn't' settled yet and it may not be settled for a while."
In his final days, Eisengren did put his name on an effort to create the Town of Devens, filing a citizens petition similar to the 2011 petition. State Senator Jamie Eldridge said he had breakfast with Eisengrein and Barbardoro at their Devens home three weeks ago. Eldridge said that's when Eisengrein asked that his petition be filed by Eldridge's office on his behalf, as is how citizens' petitions are filed.
Eldridge said Eisengrein's petition was filed by his office "two Friday's ago," just a few days before Eisengrein's death.
"Even during the last days of his life, he was engaged and thinking about how to improve the community," said Eldridge. "He didn't 'just complain about it. He went out, he organized, he used his experience as an engineer to think about how to make a difference - and he really did."
Eisengrein is "legend" in Eldridge's hometown of Acton, said the lawmaker. Eisengrein was a member of the Acton community group ACES that championed the clean-up of W.R. Grace's contaminated Acton plant site.
"I first met Bob and Bette when I got into politics in 1990 at 16 years old when I was working for Bob Durand in a close senate race," said Eldridge. "I remember I went to their house to get their support. I sat down with them and realized how engaged Bob was not only in Democratic politics but as an environmental activist."
Now, 30 years later, the Acton Superfund site is clean with contaminated sediment removed and new ground-water treatment systems in place.
"If they hadn't fought back against W.R. Grace, the people of Acton wouldn't have known about the contamination and maybe some families would have had health problems," said Eldridge. Eldridge said Eisengrein "cared very deeply about issues - whether it was the environmental issues in Acton or community issues on Devens."
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