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DEVENS

Towns to vote on Devens housing

Special sessions set for Wednesday

The three towns bordering the former Fort Devens property will vote yet again Wednesday on whether to convert its historic and long-empty Vicksburg Square section into a centerpiece residential development.

And this time, the stakes could not be higher.

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After spending two years trying to build local support, the project’s developer, Trinity Financial, would pull the plug on its drive to turn historic barracks at the old Army complex into new apartments if voters in Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley reject the proposal, according to a company spokesman.

The announcement came as supporters and opponents of the proposed 246-unit complex, which would include apartments set aside for veterans, continue to debate its merits ahead of a rare trio of simultaneous town meetings. The project will require approval by all three communities to move forward.

Last week, Harvard selectmen voted 3 to 1 against endorsing the proposal, while selectmen in Ayer voted 3 to 2 in favor of endorsing it. Shirley selectmen already had voted in favor of the project.

Marie Sobalvarro, chairwoman of the Harvard Board of Selectmen, was among the members who voted no last week.

Looking ahead to the eventual return of Devens land to the three communities, Sobalvarro said that converting the old barracks into affordable housing is not a viable long-term solution. Each unit would bring in less than $1,000 in annual tax revenue, which would not be enough to cover the extra demand on town services, she said.

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“Given the size of Ayer and Harvard, this would swamp us, in effect,’’ she said.

David Berry, Shirley’s chief administrative officer, said his town “has been supportive of having something positive and beneficial happen there.’’

Ayer Selectman Jim Fay said the developer’s decision to give preference for affordable units to veterans will lead to its approval by voters in his town. Roughly 10 percent of Ayer’s population consists of veterans or people in the military now.

He had served as an officer at Fort Devens, Fay said, before retiring from the military in 1990 and settling in Ayer.

If the proposal fails and Trinity pulls out, it could scare off any future developers, leaving Vicksburg Square empty and unwanted, he said. That could saddle the towns with a “white elephant’’ that cannot be torn down because of its historic significance, but which no one wants to renovate either.

“If we shoot this thing down, I don’t think there will be another player to come to the plate,’’ Fay said.

But a fellow Ayer selectman, Frank Maxant, doesn’t share Fay’s views.

“I am opposed to it,’’ said Maxant, citing the project’s scale, among other issues. “A city block of housing isolated from anything like a city isn’t going to work. It is going to wind up something everybody regrets.’’

The debate is the latest in a long-running argument over what to do with what was once the town center of the old Fort Devens; a previous attempt to turn Vicksburg Square into apartments was shot down by local voters in 2009.

Although a small group of homeowners living in converted officer housing has long hoped a larger community might take root, some residents in the towns around the base-turned-business-park have been wary of an influx of new residents.

For its part, Trinity, a Boston-based developer of affordable housing, believes there is not much more it can do to make its case, having crafted plans and held many meetings with residents and officials about proposals to redevelop Vicksburg Square, even opening an office in Ayer, said Conor Yunits, a spokesman for Trinity.

“You name it, we met with them,’’ Yunits said.

Without votes of approval in Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley on Wednesday, Trinity will no longer be able to continue the effort, and will move on to other projects, he said.

“If it doesn’t pass, that will be it for Trinity,’’ Yunits said. “We have spent almost two years trying to get this done. The cost of running an office and producing materials to answer all the questions there really is a huge cost there.’’

The proposal calls for 246 apartments, with 80 percent of the units set aside for income-eligible tenants, in households earning less than the area’s median income. Rents would range from $450 to $1,200 a month, according to Trinity.

In a major nod to the large number of retired military personnel living in the area, there would be a built-in preference for veterans and active-duty military personnel for the affordable apartments. One building in the old four-building barracks complex would be reserved for senior housing.

Yet the daunting community votes this week have made supporters aware of the difficulty they face.

“I think it’s hard to win one Town Meeting, let along three in the same night on any project,’’ Yunits said.

After the public hearings and other meetings, the project still faces dogged concerns from vocal critics.

Maxant, the Ayer selectman, said that the proposed project would hurt the local rental market, adding hundreds of units at a time when local landlords are struggling to attract tenants,

He is also concerned about a potential increase in school costs when Ayer, Shirley, and Harvard take control of Devens in 2033. Ayer and Shirley, which share a school district, would probably bear the brunt of that.

But an even greater concern to the critics is the decision to fill Vicksburg Square with new housing, instead of innovation and technology companies that would provide new jobs.

The Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, which oversees Devens, has said that such companies are not interested in Vicksburg Square, but Maxant said there has not been enough of an effort to make the complex work as a commercial hub.

“We don’t need more housing here,’’ Maxant said.

Yunits said the concern over town finances relates to the 2033 date, when MassDevelopment begins the process of giving back the former military property to the communities that provided the land for it originally. The developer has argued that there is a need for affordable apartments for local families, with the project only big enough to meet 10 percent of the demand.

Still, even setting the date of the simultaneous meetings has been contentious: Some project critics unsuccessfully urged selectmen in Harvard and Ayer to refuse to sign the warrants for the special sessions.

But Fay, the Ayer selectman, hopes voters don’t lose sight of what he considers to be the big picture.

While 246 apartments may sound like a lot, it’s a “drop in the bucket’’ compared with the 1,700 units of housing that Devens had during its military heyday.

“To do nothing is sinful, given the history of the buildings and the servicemen who served there,’’ Fay said.

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