DEVENS - Three community representatives attended last Thursday's Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS) meeting along with a representative of MassDevelopment. Chairman Tom Kinch of the Devens Committee, Vice Chairman Frank Maxant of the Ayer selectmen and Rico Cappucci representing the Shirley Board of Selectmen met along with MassDevelopment Land Entitlement Director Edmund Starzec.
Harvard has indicated it will attend meetings on an as-needed basis and has tapped selectman Tim Clark as a liaison to the JBOS. Devens alternate member Phil Crosby was also at the table.
As the JBOS forges ahead, it voted 3-0 to both extend its employment contract with administrative assistant Liz Garner and its services contract with the Montachusett Regional Planning Council (MRPC).
-- MASSDEVELOPMENT TRANSPARENCY
The JBOS requested and was provided with an audit performed by MassDevelopment regarding Devens policing. While that wasn't discussed, it sparked another conversation over why the JBOS isn't being notified about the status of MassDevelopment's education contract with Harvard for educating Devens school-aged children.
"We [Ayer-Shirley] now have a regional school system here," said Cappucci. "My understanding is they might open the bid again That's a large amount of money that could be contributed to the regional system. It's unfair that the JBOS has not been addressed on that." Cappucci said gathering such information is "our mandate."
"What I hear in the
Kinch said there's always been "a wall" between selectmen and school committees. Cappucci disagreed, "We should know that." Cappucci requested a status report on the education contract renewal for the next meeting.
"This is really an extension," said Starzec. "It was in renewal-at-will" before, but the newly inked deal will simply "take some of the risk out of saying 'We're going year-by-year."
"I see it different," said Cappucci. "I see it as a courtesy. We should have been included in it." Cappucci said the same goes for bidding on Devens policing contracts.
"It's the word 'transparency.' It's a big word," said Cappucci. "There's no transparency in this, there' s no transparency in that."
"That's what happens when you talk nice to MassDevelopment," said Maxant.
"I think you're making a case for good strong communication with MassDevelopment," said Kinch. An update on the education contract "rests with MassDevelopment and Harvard."
"They don't want to attend our meetings (but) they get whatever they want," said Cappucci.
"That's what we say about Shirley getting whatever they want," said Maxant.
"Well, we're here," answered Cappucci.
Crosby said there need to be a "cultural change now, not five years from now. MassDevelopment can't operate in an absolute vacuum. Open those lines up."
Maxant stressed that MassDevelopment's decisions are made in Boston, and not at the JBOS table or the Devens level. "Unless we're talking to the governor, we're talking to the wall."
Crosby said communication didn't flow freely when the agency launched the New Year's demolition of the former base chapel by Rogers Field. "I get asked all the time" why the chapel came down, said Crosby.
Crosby theorized the agency decided "if we say too much, we'll be in months of haggling." Crosby rued that the community dialogue was missing. "Participatory democracy is a messy process."
You've "got to talk to the statehouse," reasserted Maxant.
Cappucci said MassDevelopment's predecessor to George Ramirez as Executive Vice President for Devens Operations - Richard Montuori - was "a nice guy but he showed up only once in a while and said little."
Cappucci said he feels "blind sighted" over Devens absent the communication flow. "You need to know these things when you represent a board."
Cappucci said "you can't make any recommendations" to MassDevelopment if the JBOS doesn't know what's going on.
"A decision making group we're not," agreed Kinch. "If we can't do that, maybe what we do is ensure communications are open, consistent and accurate."
"We have no authority," agreed Maxant. "I see no change here unless we get to the governor's office. We need to learn it again, I'm afraid."
--PUT HOUSING PUSH ON HOLD?
Devens remains "in limbo" since the ultimate disposition over the final jurisdiction of the former Fort Devens Army base lands remains in the air, said Crosby. "As long as I've lived here, that's been the central core problem. We're left in no-man's land."
Crosby said "direct" and potentially "painful" discussions must be initiated with Ayer and Harvard to hash-over "possibilities for the future." Till then, talk of large-scale housing on Devens should wait, said Crosby.
"Because you can't build it out and then say 'OK. We're going to decide what you are," said Crosby. The risk is creating a "six headed hydra" of competing interests, said Crosby.
Crosby also called for "a change in attitude" from MassDevelopment.
"We assume we have the blessing" to proceed with Grant Road planning, said Starzec. "We hear a lot of 'Follow the Reuse Plan."
The 1994 Devens Reuse Plan was approved by the three towns and includes zoning for a 140-acre residential development off Grant Road
Maxant issued his own "challenge" for "an attitude change" at MassDevelopment. Maxant said to Starzec that the state agency acts like "bulls with blinders on, forging ahead with your interpretation of the Reuse Plan "
"Can we stick to the agenda?" appealed Starzec.
Maxant suggested "Phil's plea" for a change in attitude "is going to go unanswered."
"I was trying to till the field," said Crosby to Maxant. "Not throw a match on it."
"All these nice, kind words with MassDevelopment have gotten us nothing," said Maxant.
"Time out," said Kinch. "I don't think it's fair to assert there's been a problem on the part of MassDevelopment or the towns, but there's been a failure to assert a residential plan."
In July, the Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC) announced it's working on "Innovative Residential Development" (IRD) guidelines which, if approved by the full commission, could direct the future development of Grant Road.
The hold-up is the "economy more than anything else," suggested Kinch. "Someone should take the bull by the horns. Right now that ball is in the court of the DEC to come up with what they interpret to be the best approach. It's kind of a stalemate and it has been for about two years."
Starzec provided an update on Devens vacancy rates. "In the big picture, Devens is about 20 percent vacant," said Starzec.
Of 4.5 million square feet of built space, 1.25 million square feet of space is empty. Seventy-five percent of that vacant space is located within the "west rail" industrial portion of Devens.
Anheuser-Busch, Kraft, half the Gillette and all of the Sonoco warehouse facilities are vacant, totaling 900,000 square feet of available space to let. On a positive note, distributors Quiet Logistics and NFI occupy 350,000 square feet of previously empty space in the west rail areas.
The available space is being maintained and all are paying taxes to MassDevelopment, said Starzec. "None of them are obsolete."
On Barnum Road, the available space is largely at the former Evergreen Solar factory. Saint Gobain is building out half the plant's space the LED manufacturing operations. A separate entrance is being constructed for yet-to-be announced other tenants.
On Jackson Road, home to Bristol Meyers Squibb and American Superconductor, there is just 4 percent vacancy located on the Mount Wachusett Devens campus. In the Jackson Road business incubator space, there is 94,000 square feet available. Recent cosmetic upgrades have been completed and wireless internet access installed in hopes of attracting small technology firms.
Starzec claimed a 10 percent vacancy rate around Rogers Field, concentrated in the vacant building at 67 Buena Vista Street. There was no mention of the massive 430,000 square foot vacant Vicksburg Square Innovation and Technology-zoned quadrangle on Buena Vista.
In the Devens Commons business district, there's 3 percent vacancy. On Adams Circle, seven of the 8 "net zero" energy-efficient single family homes under construction have been sold or are under agreement, said Starzec. The balance of nearby land is protected open space, preventing the construction of more like homes. Starzec said that restriction "just doesn't make a lot of sense...that might be something that we can think about."
"It just seems so illogical," agreed Devens Committee member Phil Crosby.
"We'll leave that one alone for tonight," said Starzec. Zoning changes in the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ) requires 'yes' votes from Ayer, Harvard and Shirley town meetings. Such an attempt failed in March.
At the MJM television and movie studio project off Jackson Road, "Grading is basically complete" said Starzec."I knew they were getting close to pouring the slab for the sound stage building."
Logging is complete at a 25 acre lot off Walker Road for a solar farm on leased land in the Environmental Business Zone (EBZ). The project is sponsored by Citizens Energy. "They're getting towards finish grade There are certainly no solar panels in there yet."
Follow Mary Arata on facebook.com/mary.arata and twitter.com/maryearata.