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Devens, SouthField face similar challenges

Fort Devens and the South Weymouth Naval Air Station have much in common. Both occupy land in three towns, and both served as military bases for many decades.

In the mid-1990s both were closed and slated for redevelopment. As they grow into new communities and forge identities of their own, both face the challenges of providing municipal services for residents while maintaining good relationships with their neighboring towns.

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Devens, as the property occupied by the fort is now called, has 4,400 acres within the towns of Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley, and is about three times the size of SouthField, which straddles Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth. It is overseen by MassDevelopment, the state’s finance and development authority, while SouthField is run by the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., a local redevelopment agency.

Unlike SouthField, which may host up to 2,855 homes someday, housing in Devens is capped at 282 units. There are currently 151 homes at Devens, and 370 people live there.

Children from Devens attend school in Harvard. Devens residents whose homes fall within the boundaries of Harvard vote in Harvard; residents who are in the town of Ayer vote in Ayer. There are no homes in Devens within the boundaries of Shirley.

Devens has its own Fire Department and its own wastewater treatment facility, and gets drinking water from its own four wells. MassDevelopment contracts with the Massachusetts State Police to provide public safety patrols. SouthField, on the other hand, lacks a permanent water supply and on-site wastewater treatment facility; for now, it relies on the town of Weymouth for police and fire protection, as well as water and sewer services.

Since a proposal to make Devens the 352nd town in Massachusetts failed in 2006, it has continued to evolve. Of the 8.5 million square feet slated for redevelopment at Devens, 4.9 million square feet has been built out — and most of it is has been commercial.

Unlike SouthField, which has yet to see any commercial development, Devens is home to 95 businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies that employ about 3,208 workers, according to a recent study by the UMass Donahue Institute.

SouthField’s master plan has included 2 million square feet of office and commercial space, an indoor sports facility, an 18-hole golf course, ice skating rink, tennis courts, turf fields, and a movie studio complex. None of those have been built.

Devens boasts the Red Tail Golf Club, and a movie studio complex is in the works. On June 26, ground was broken for New England Studios, which will include four 18,000-square-foot sound stages, production support offices, a storage building, and sound stage support areas. The studios are scheduled to open by summer 2013.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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