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Fate of Devens development uncertain

Ayer, Harvard put Vicksburg Square efforts in limbo

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

The defeated proposal for Vicksburg Square had called for 246 apartments, with 80 percent set aside as affordable units.

Historic Vicksburg Square, the once-grand centerpiece of the Devens property, faces an uncertain future after last week’s rejection of the latest bid to redevelop the abandoned barracks complex.

Voters in Ayer and Harvard decisively defeated a proposal that would have converted Vicksburg Square into affordable housing targeted at military veterans and the elderly. Voters in Shirley, the third area community with a stake in the former Army base’s redevelopment, approved the proposal.

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The neighboring towns have veto power over any attempts to change the zoning rules at Vicksburg Square, with a no vote by any one of them enough to scuttle a plan.

In the wake of last week’s votes at simultaneous Super Town Meeting sessions, the project’s Boston-based developer, Trinity Financial, carried through on its threat to pull out, ending more than two years of meetings and debates.

“Our involvement in Vicksburg Square has officially come to an end,’’ Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the developer, wrote in an e-mail.

Faced with the third defeat in six years of a major proposal related to the future of Devens or Vicksburg Square, officials in the towns are at odds over what to do next, if anything.

“To me, it’s strike three of three attempts to get something done in Devens,’’ said Jim Fay, chairman of the Ayer Board of Selectmen.

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Meanwhile, a small contingent of Devens residents, living in converted officers housing on the old base near Vicksburg Square, are expressing fears that they could be stuck with the shuttered former barracks.

Some had welcomed Trinity’s proposal, which called for converting Vicksburg Square, the Main Street of the old Fort Devens, into 246 apartments, 80 percent of them to be set aside for income-eligible tenants.

Tom Kinch, a longtime Devens resident, has long wanted to see the barracks complex, which sports broken and boarded-up windows, converted into residences.

But the prospect of an influx of hundreds of rentals, many of them targeted at people with low and moderate incomes, sparked opposition, especially in Harvard and Ayer.

The moment of truth came on the evening of March 28, when Town Meeting voters in the three communities were asked to decide the fate of the Vicksburg Square housing proposal.

Ayer voters struck first, shooting down the proposal by a 2 to 1 ratio, followed shortly by an equally lopsided vote in Harvard, with only Shirley voting yes.

The outcome has left Devens residents like Kinch back at square one, marking the second time in three years that plans to convert Vicksburg Square into housing have been spurned.

While commercial developments involving labs or offices would not require approval by local voters, there has been little if any interest from that end of the market, Kinch said.

“As the dust clears, the residents of Devens are sitting there and looking at this and saying what in the world is happening,’’ Kinch said.

Frank Kolarik, chairman of Shirley’s Finance Committee, said the future of Vicksburg Square is not a pressing concern in his town. Although Shirley selectmen endorsed the plan, Kolarik’s committee recommended against it out of concern the project would flood the market with lower-end rentals.

“From a Shirley standpoint, I don’t think there is any concern of that type in terms of an eyesore; Vicksburg Square is not something that most people see every day,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Harvard and Ayer officials are divided over what to do with the historic barracks complex, or what the next steps should be.

One of the major concerns raised about the Vicksburg Square plan during last week’s heated Town Meeting debates was what impact the hundreds of additional apartments would have on the local schools and municipal finances in Ayer, Shirley, and Harvard.

But that question proved to be difficult to pin down, with project foes and opponents throwing out different predictions over the impact of an event not set to take place for more than two decades.

The Massachusetts Development Finance Agency oversees the former Army base, now an industrial park with a small cluster of homes, and is not set to turn over control of the unincorporated area to the three towns until 2033.

There are widely differing views among residents and officials in the three towns over what should be built at Vicksburg Square, with some arguing for more market-rate housing, others for commercial development.

Given this situation, Marie Sobalvarro, chairwoman of Harvard’s Board of Selectmen, said that the three towns need to first reach an agreement over how they will divide up jurisdiction over the sprawling property, including Vicksburg Square, when it is eventually returned to their control.

She said she wants to see a committee formed of officials from the three towns and Devens residents to hash out the issue, with a two-year deadline to work out a solution.

Once jurisdiction is settled, Sobalvarro said, she wants the towns to move to take control of Devens sooner rather than later, a move she thinks would clear the way for the redevelopment of Vicksburg Square.

She contends a solution for what to do with Vicksburg Square has to come from the bottom up.

“If the three towns were working on it together, as opposed to getting a push . . . from the top down from Boston, it would have a higher degree of credibility and success,’’ she said.

But not all of her colleagues share her interest, with Ronald Ricci, a fellow Harvard selectman, saying the town has done all it can.

He noted that Harvard had voted in favor of a housing proposal back in 2009, one that featured a much greater proportion of market-rate units.

“It’s up to others to determine what is next for Vicksburg Square,’’ Ricci said.

By contrast, Fay, chairman of Ayer’s Board of Selectmen, thinks the solution is to be found not by turning to the towns, but with greater state control.

Fay oversaw a panel of officials from the three towns and Devens that attempted to explore development plans for the former Army fort.

But Fay said it was impossible to come to an agreement on anything, even to form a subcommittee to examine the future governance of Devens.

“There are three different cultures going on here,’’ Fay said of the neighboring towns. “We couldn’t even form a committee to get the governance question going; that’s how bad it was.’’

Fay contends the current requirement, written into state law, that any zoning changes at Devens have to win approval at three simultaneous meetings is impossible to meet.

Fay said the Legislature needs to remove that requirement and put control over development at Devens squarely under the state’s financing agency.

But MassDevelopment is not discussing what it will do next in wake of the defeat of the latest Vicksburg Square plan.

Although the state authority says it has no plans to drop efforts to bring more housing to Devens, a spokeswoman contended it is too early to discuss next steps.

“Vicksburg Square may be the iconic heart of Devens, but last night’s defeat will not take the heart out of our work to fully develop Devens and keep it an economic engine for north-central Massachusetts,’’ said Kelsey Abbruzzese, the spokeswoman, on the day after the votes.

“We will continue our commitment to bring housing for all income groups to Devens, and explore ways to make zoning changes that will welcome worthy proposals like Trinity’s.’’

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