HARVARD -- The Joint Boards of Selectmen recently asked its members representing Ayer, Harvard and Shirley to take back to their individual boards a question that the Harvard board has not answered, although the issue came up at its meeting last week.
The two-part question, which relates to an envisioned shift in Devens governance, asked if the boards support the concept of shared governance and if Devens residents should be polled first, with a fleshed-out proposal to be presented at the three Annual Town Meetings this spring via a common, nonbinding referendum.
The brainchild of Selectman and JBOS member Leo Blair, the nascent proposal JBOS aimed to air in the three towns was basically this: Do Devens stakeholders -- in this case the towns of Ayer, Shirley and Harvard, with Devens residents weighing in via their by-right votes in Ayer or Harvard -- favor creating an "overlay district" for the Devens Redevelopment Enterprise Zone (DREZ) now operated under the auspices of MassDevelopment?
In this scenario, the agency continues its state-subsidized mission to redevelop the former Army base but cedes municipal jurisdiction to the three towns whose historic boundaries exist within it. The alternative would be the status quo spelled out in state law, in which Mass Development stays in charge, at least until 2033.
For now, the two-part takeaway for the three boards to consider was this: Do you favor the governance plan JBOS is germinating and if so, should Devens residents be polled separately to see if they support the idea before a referendum question is drafted?
When Bob Prescott, who represents Shirley on JBOS, asked fellow selectmen to weigh in, the board voted not to consider the larger issue until Devens residents get their say.
But Harvard selectmen, when they discussed the issue last Tuesday night, made no move to vote on it as a question. In fact, it only came up in the context of Blair's JBOS update.
Blair told his colleagues that JBOS member and Devens resident Tom Kinch made a pitch for the status quo. Noting that the "trial balloon" concept was proposed at a tri-board and JBOS meeting in Ayer in December, followed by another session in Shirley last month. Blair said Kinch favored polling Devens residents first, with the balloon's takeoff tethered to the results.
Blair said he opposed that idea, arguing that Devens residents already vote in Harvard or Ayer, at which point Kinch said he (Kinch) was not a Harvard resident, Blair reported, but a Devens resident and a "spirited conversation" ensued.
"The bottom line is I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding" about rights, relationships and obligations that should or should not hinge on Devens votes, Blair said.
Painting a picture of what could occur "if we allow this process to languish," he said the existing Devens-based voting block -- 131 registered voters -- could double or triple when the Grant Road area is built out and that could present a problem for Harvard if the current set-up continues. In that case, a significantly greater number of residents residing within Harvard borders on Devens could vote and run for office in the town, although their interests and concerns would be different.
Take taxes, for example. Devens residents pay fees in lieu of taxes to MassDevelopment, which has state funds as well as business revenue to work with. The agency provides municipal and public safety services directly or by contract, including Mass State Police and the Harvard Public School District. Harvard residents, however, pay taxes to the town, presumably at a higher rate.
"I don't want to cause a rift ... or disrespect that constituency," Blair continued. But his careful read of state law Chapter 498, the statute that spells out Devens governance, makes it clear that Devens residents "are considered key to any Devens governance plan," he said. "And MassDevelopment seems determined to stick around."
Blair speculated that the state's investment in Devens is paying off and the agency, which at one time seemed to be seeking an early pullout date, now plans to continue on course. "I think revenue is starting to roll in" and the state doesn't want to let go," he said.
Asked after the meeting if he planned to bring the referendum issue to a vote, Blair said no.