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Ayer may try to assert control over a portion of Devens

The former Fort Devens covers portions of three communities — Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2006

The former Fort Devens covers portions of three communities — Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley.

Ayer residents will voice their opinions Monday on the future of Devens amid a two-decade debate over the former military base’s fate. 

At a Special Town Meeting, Ayer will decide whether it should try to reclaim jurisdiction over its portion of the former Fort Devens Army base land, which also falls within Shirley and Harvard.

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Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant drafted the proposal and said Ayer stands to gain $2.3 million annually in property tax revenue if passed. However, the plan cannot be put into effect unless approved by the Legislature.

Maxant’s plan would allow Ayer to take back its portion of Devens that was given to the military after the base was built in 1917. The state took over jurisdiction in 1993 as Devens was in the process of closing. 

Not recognized as a city nor a town, Devens — now home to about 1,800 residents and 80 businesses — uses state agencies for services normally carried out by municipalities. For example, State Police patrol the community instead of a local police department. Property owners pay taxes to MassDevelopment, a quasipublic state economic development agency with an office in Devens that fast-tracks planning and zoning permits to spur economic growth.

James Fay, chairman of the Ayer Board of Selectmen, supports the Maxant measure. 

“The 200 or so families [in Devens] are screaming for a clear, legitimate government; not MassDevelopment,” Fay said.

‘MassDevelopment from the very beginning has been swindling our towns by ignoring the Reuse Plan.’

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But not all residents agree.

“We’re a very tightly bonded community,” said Bette Barbadoro, a Devens resident for 11 years. “To take it apart and give away one section to a town that hasn’t had it in 100 years is a little simplistic and ridiculous.”

One problem with the current setup is that any major decisions in Devens have to be decided by the residents of Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley — at separate town meetings — which is no easy task. 

Last spring a plan by MassDevelopment to build 246 apartments in Vicksburg Square was rejected when Ayer and Harvard defeated the proposal. Shirley, however, voted in favor of it.

As Devens continues to grow, Fay said there is a need for towns to regain control. 

“It’s become clear to me that MassDevelopment wasn’t listening to communities,” said Fay, referring to Vicksburg Square and other rejected development proposals. “MassDevelopment from the very beginning has been swindling our towns by ignoring the [Devens] Reuse Plan,” said Maxant, referring to the 1994 blueprint of economic growth for Devens that was created by local and state officials, and which can be found online at www.harvard.ma.us/pages/HarvardMA_Devens/devens.

MassDevelopment declined to comment for this article.

At the Ayer Special Town Meeting on Monday, residents will decide on two warrant articles pertaining to Devens. The first would revert the portion of the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone that lies within Ayer back to Ayer; the second article would ask the Legislature to repeal a 1993 act, commonly known as Chapter 498, that gave the Commonwealth of Massachusetts jurisdiction over Devens. 

The warrant articles were submitted as home-rule petitions, which involved collecting signatures from town residents, and did not need approval by the town’s attorney before being placed on the warrant, according to Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand. 

Neither Shirley nor Harvard have any proposals to reclaim jurisdiction over Devens, according to administrators in both towns.

Even if the Ayer articles pass Special Town Meeting, they still have to be approved by the Legislature before being enacted, which some say is unlikely. There is also dispute among local officials over whether Shirley and Harvard would have to approve the same measure in their towns before submitting the proposal to state officials.

Chapter 498 expires in 2033, which means a decision on how Devens will be governed does not have to be decided until then.

Thomas Kinch, a Devens resident and chairman of the Joint Boards of Selectmen, which serves as a residential advisory board to MassDevelopment, has concerns about the Ayer proposal.

“It’s not well thought out and it’s not substantiated by any data or facts,” Kinch said. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to some frustration [Maxant] has with the current management of [the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone.]”

Using numbers provided by Ayer department heads, Maxant said the town could obtain about $2.3 million per year in new property tax revenue. 

But, he said, about $710,000 in new costs for additional police, fire, and public works services would be incurred. He did not include money for schools. 

“There’s no mention about the renewed education contract,” Kinch said. 

The Harvard School District currently has a contract with Devens to educate all of the community’s students, with Devens paying nearly $13,500 per student this academic year, according to a copy of the contract posted on the Harvard School District’s website. 

“The contract wouldn’t be affected by the change in jurisdiction,” Maxant said. Because the contract won’t expire for three years, he said the issue would be visited then. 

“If the parents thought their children were going to be ripped out of the Harvard schools, they’d be marching in the streets,” Barbadoro said.

Brian McNulty, who lives in the Ayer portion of Devens with his 8-year-old son, would not be happy if the Harvard education contract expired. 

“I’d fight tooth and nail to keep my kid in there,” McNulty said. “The only reason anybody moves to Harvard is because of the school system. They have a good one.”

Barbadoro said MassDevelopment is doing “a terrific job,” but she and other Devens residents have long supported turning Devens into its own town, creating the 352d municipality in Massachusetts. 

“We wanted to spray for mosquitoes here, but we couldn’t because Harvard didn’t believe in spraying,” she said. “The only complaint we have is we can’t control our own destiny.”

Fay, on the other hand, does not see state officials jumping at the chance to create a new municipality in a sluggish economy any time soon. 

“I don’t think the state wants to cut the pie 352 ways if they don’t have to,” he said.

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