Ayer residents this week overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for the town to reclaim jurisdiction over its portion of the former Fort Devens military base after several people said the plan lacked details.
The action was taken in a voice vote at a Special Town Meeting on Monday night. There were 388 registered voters in attendance, officials said.
Devens, a community that is not recognized as a city or town, is now home to about 1,800 residents and 80 businesses, and geographically lies within Ayer, Shirley, and Harvard. The state has had local governmental jurisdiction since 1993, when the military base was in the process of closing, and Devens property owners pay taxes to the quasi-public state economic development agency MassDevelopment.
Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant, who drafted the Special Town Meeting proposal, said Ayer stood to gain $2.3 million in additional property tax revenue annually if his idea passed, but would also incur $710,000 in new expenses for additional police, fire, and public works services. However, his numbers were challenged by some local officials.
“I checked, Frank, and you are 50 percent off your number,” said Armen Demerjian, who lives in the Ayer portion of Devens and is on the Devens Board of Assessors. “In my estimate, Ayer is going to be getting not a windfall but a burden.”
Maxant’s proposal was presented as two home-rule petition warrant articles. The first would have allowed Ayer to take back jurisdiction of its portion of Devens, which was rejected in a voice vote. Residents also voted to pass over the second article, which would have asked the state Legislature to repeal a 1993 bill, commonly known as Chapter 498, which gave the state jurisdiction of Devens.
“I find it hard to believe the state Legislature is just going to turn this property back to us and let us collect the revenue,” Ayer resident Murray Clark said during the meeting, “but we’re not going to purchase the land or share in what they’ve done to make improvements to [it].”
Maxant maintained that Ayer needs the additional property tax revenue, and that more than 700,000 square feet of empty building space lies in the Ayer portion of Devens. He said business owners and developers would rather deal with local officials than a state agency when opening new businesses and handling zoning issues.
“This is an opportunity that doesn’t normally happen in Ayer,” Maxant said. “We have the potential to bring in new economic activity under this type of management that [makes it] comfortable for businesses to operate.”
Ayer resident Laurie Nehring said she was uncomfortable voting in favor of the plan because she didn’t understand how Maxant arrived at his $2.3 million figure.
“I have no idea where that is coming from,” Nehring said. “I’d need to see a list of commercial entities to know where that is coming from.”
Demerjian pointed out that Ayer has a much higher commercial tax rate than Devens.
“If you think that businesses are going to be paying double the tax by being under Ayer, you are very mistaken,” said Demerjian, adding that the town line of Ayer and Harvard goes through many downtown Devens buildings. “If this passes, don’t be surprised if some businesses leave.”
Ayer’s commercial/industrial tax rate is $27.20 per $1,000 of assessed value, while Devens’s is $17.12.
Maxant did not include the increases in educational costs for Devens children who might attend school in Ayer if his plan passed. Currently, Devens schoolchildren are sent to the Harvard school district under a three-year contract that was renewed earlier this year, with Devens spending about $13,500 per student.
The Ayer Finance Committee did not take a position on Maxant’s proposal, largely because of the lack of information on school costs, said committee chairman Scott Houde.
“The big question the finance committee had was the education cost,” Houde said. “That’s something we’re really unsure of.”
Maxant told the Globe last week that, if his plan passed, children could continue to attend Harvard schools and the contract issue could be visited upon its expiration in three years.
Some Devens residents said they would be upset if they had to send their children to Ayer schools.
“The only reason anybody moves to Harvard is because of the school system. They have a good one,” Brian McNulty, who lives in the Ayer portion of Devens with his 8-year-old son, told the Globe last week. “I’d fight tooth and nail to keep my kid in there.”
“We the residents are opposed to splitting the community, especially when our children are going to the Harvard schools,” Demerjian said.
Houde said the Finance Committee also took issue with how Maxant arrived at his cost estimates, specifically when it came to increases in the fire and public works departments. The $287,500 increase for fire and $200,000 for public works were vague estimates that did not account for additional apparatus, he said.
No one spoke in favor of Maxant’s plan other than himself at the meeting. However, James Fay, chairman of the Ayer Board of Selectmen, told the Globe last week that he was in favor of it.