The transformation of the former Fort Devens into a sprawling industrial park that spans three towns has been an unqualified economic success. Today, more than 6,000 people work there, about as many as during its heyday as a military base.
But that growth could come to an abrupt halt without swift action from the state Legislature.
The reason? The original 1994 legislation that established the industrial park, an hour’s drive northwest of Boston, limits the amount of commercial development allowed there. And Devens is getting quite close to reaching that cap. With 7.7 million square feet of commercial space already built or permitted and construction remaining brisk, the cap of 8.5 million square feet could be hit later this year.
Devens is known for its ease of permitting. Maybe not for much longer.
“I’m going to have to say, ‘You can’t develop this project because that’s going to put us over the 8.5 million,’ ” said Devens Enterprise Commission director Peter Lowitt, whose agency oversees Devens land-use permits. “I want to avoid that.”
He said if he’s forced to tell employers that they can’t expand in Devens because there’s no more room to grow, it “could do immense reputational damage to Devens.”
The 4,400-acre base has room for another 3 million-plus square feet of development, and what has been built to date has had a far smaller impact in terms of water, sewer, and road usage than initially projected.
Senator Jamie Eldridge, whose district includes Devens, said he would file a bill to eliminate the cap, ideally as an amendment to a broader economic development package, before the Legislature ends formal sessions for the year on July 31. But before he does that, all three Devens towns — Ayer, Shirley, and Harvard — need to agree. The select board in Shirley recently endorsed lifting the cap; a similar vote took place Wednesday in Ayer. The last important test will come Tuesday, when the Harvard select board meets to discuss it.
Commercial growth at Devens — home to 100-plus businesses, everything from medicine manufacturing to lettuce farming to movie studios and a future fusion reactor — generally enjoys more support in the three towns than does residential construction. An earlier effort this year to lift the 282-unit cap on housing at Devens did not get far.
Even if the commercial cap goes away, base landlord MassDevelopment still has work to do to repair its relationships. There has been grumbling that the quasi-public agency, led by former Lawrence mayor Dan Rivera, has been conspicuously absent in local affairs lately. In April, MassDevelopment informed the three towns that it won’t participate in discussions around the future governance of Devens until the current system’s 2033 expiration date gets closer. Some say MassDevelopment, not the Devens Enterprise Commission, should be spearheading the effort to address the cap, though Rivera did appear by Zoom at the Wednesday meeting to express support.
The Harvard-Devens Jurisdiction Committee, a group charged with helping to plan a post-2033 future for Devens, just sent the Harvard select board a memo recommending that any cap change be postponed until MassDevelopment provides more specific information about the area’s full development potential.
Harvard select board chair Rich Maiore said he does not want to slow down the former base’s economic boom. But, he said, MassDevelopment needs to be more forthcoming after weeks of “radio silence.” He also wants the agency to subsidize a consulting firm to help plan Devens’ future. (While Eldridge would like to see MassDevelopment contribute, he is also seeking state funding for the Devens study.)
“We would like to use this opportunity to remind MassDevelopment that we’re in a partnership that’s been a bit one-sided lately,” Maiore said.
MassDevelopment officials declined to comment, other than to provide a statement saying they support the enterprise commission’s efforts to lift the cap.
Eldridge said he’s waiting for letters of approval from all three towns before he pursues legislation to lift the cap. It’s possible it could go through in informal sessions after July 31, when noncontroversial matters can be taken up, but it would be much more expedient to do it via the economic development bill. The timing is tight to get an amendment in: The House just approved its version of the bill on Thursday, and the Senate is expected to do the same this week, with final passage expected by the end of the month.
“I appreciate MassDevelopment’s and the Devens Enterprise Commission’s outreach ... and I’m looking to hear more from the towns,” Eldridge said. “The relations between MassDevelopment and the three towns have deteriorated in the past two years, and I’m hopeful that will improve.”