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Lawmakers lift cap on new building at Devens

The change permits up to roughly 20 million square feet at old Army base northwest of Boston, up from the current cap of 8.5 million.

Fort Devens in 2006. Lawmakers last week increased a cap on commercial development at the former military base.Ryan, David L Globe Staff

The gates won’t be closing on construction projects at Devens after all.

Tucked in the back of the 200-plus page economic development bill that the state Legislature enacted on Thursday is language that lifts the cap on future commercial projects at Devens — the 4,400-acre former Army base that sprawls across three towns about an hour’s drive northwest of Boston, serving as the state’s flagship industrial park.

“We were sweating bullets,” said Peter Lowitt, director of the Devens Enterprise Commission, a land-use agency. “[Now] we won’t have to tell Bristol Myers Squibb or Commonwealth Fusion that they can’t do their next planned expansions, which is something we were fearing without intervention from the Legislature.”

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The original 1994 legislation that established the industrial park limited the amount of development there to 8.5 million square feet. With construction continuing at a steady pace, that cap could have been hit as soon as this winter. It would have brought an abrupt halt to future development efforts, and created a bad impression as officials at MassDevelopment — the quasi-public agency that oversees Devens — try to market the place to employers for expansion opportunities.

As room ran out under the existing cap, Senator Jamie Eldridge, who represents the three Devens towns, pushed language at the State House this year that would have raised the limit to 12 million square feet. Select boards in two of the three towns, Shirley and Ayer, endorsed eliminating the cap entirely. But the select board in Harvard, the third Devens town, favored the 12 million-square-foot limit, so Eldridge stuck to that.

The Legislature ended up approving language submitted by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration that is more permissive. This language raises the cap by 12 million “net new square feet,” on top of what is there already — essentially permitting nearly 20 million square feet in all.

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“We’re disappointed,” Rich Maiore, chair of the Harvard board, said via e-mail. “We’ll keep working to have voices of those living in and next to Devens heard.”

The area in Devens known as Vicksburg Square (pictured here in a 2010 file photo).Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

While it’s not precisely in line with the language he submitted, Eldridge said he is relieved to see the cap lifted. Eldridge was able to get his measure in the Senate’s version of the economic development bill, but its fate became uncertain when lawmakers failed to reach an agreement before the year’s formal sessions ended on Aug. 1. The Legislature last week adopted a slimmed-down version of that bill, including Baker’s Devens language, and moved it along through lightly attended informal sessions, when no roll call votes could be held. Eldridge said he was about to file a separate bill to lift the cap because time was running out.

“It was really critical to get this done by the end of the year to really send the message that Devens continues to be a place for significant economic development,” Eldridge said.

In many ways, the conversion of the former base into an industrial park has been a big success story.

Lowitt said nearly 7,000 people work among the 100-plus companies at Devens today, roughly the same number of people who worked there when the military base was at full tilt. A 2020 UMass Donahue Institute study showed manufacturing was the most common use, with drug maker Bristol Myers Squibb employing the most people there of any company. Devens is home to an eclectic mix of tenants that range from Commonwealth Fusion, an MIT spinoff that’s building a fusion energy reactor; to produce grower Little Leaf Farms; to New England Studios, a movie production site.

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Regardless of the new development cap, Lowitt said that environmental and infrastructure constraints will also limit the amount of construction that can happen in the future there. For example, state regulations limit impervious surfaces at Devens to 984 acres, Lowitt said, and the amount is already above 800 now. For that reason, the enterprise commission is working on rules requiring new buildings to have vegetation on their roofs and to have parking lots made in a way that allows storm water to flow through to the soil underneath the lots.

Another challenge still looms for Devens: Figuring out what should happen with its governance when the current system expires in 2033. Town officials have been frustrated that MassDevelopment has not, as of late, played a more active role in figuring out a long-term plan. After Eldridge unsuccessfully sought $400,000 to cover the cost of a study from the Legislature this session, now he said he’ll ask MassDevelopment or the Devens Enterprise Commission for financial assistance.

“Given that the three towns have just agreed to a major benefit, if you will, to MassDevelopment and the DEC [by agreeing to lift the cap],” Eldridge said, “I’m going to continue to push for MassDevelopment or the DEC to provide the money for the three towns to do this study.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.