Insight: Home sweet Devens
by Mary Jo Shafer
Special to The Star
Aug 18, 2013 | 7486 views |  0 comments | 66 66 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DEVENS, Mass. – When the former Fort Devens’ re-use plan was created in the 1990s, the surrounding local communities “didn’t want a lot of housing,” as part of the plan, says Mika Brewer, MassDevelopment’s vice president of sales, marketing and real estate in Devens. The focus was jobs.

Local towns were wary of a housing boom because of added infrastructure strains, especially for the schools, and did not want to affect the local housing market by flooding it with available homes.

Because of these concerns, the Devens re-use plan caps the number of housing units allowed at 282 units.

There are currently 152 housing units developed, which leaves only 130 units available.

There’s historic housing that existed when it was an Army post and relatively new construction, which includes both single-family and townhomes.

The new-construction single-family homes are zero-net energy buildings. They sit clustered in a corner by a field, giving a sense of their own little neighborhood.

They are painted in cheerful light blues and yellows and fit easily into the New England architectural style, with one key difference - all have solar panels on their roofs.

Nearby town homes cater to retirees, empty nesters and small families. They are currently sold out.

The historic base housing includes brick bungalows and town houses laid out in a grid along quiet streets and more stately brick Georgian Revival-style houses in the former officers’ neighborhood. The yards are well-tended, American flags fly and gardens bloom in the warm July weather. While the new construction looks like a re-creation of a small New England town, the historic housing looks well-ordered, militarily precise and evocative of another era.

Resident and Joint Board of Selectmen member Tom Kinch, who has lived at Devens for 10 years, praises MassDevelopment for the housing. “They have done a very good job,” he says. Devens is “like living on a college campus,” he says.

He says it’s “beautiful,” a “great place to live,” and MassDevelopment provides the services that are fundamental to creating a thriving residential area.

But, Kinch does concede that “there are huge problems, too.”

Some, like Kinch, now advocate to lift or amend the housing cap, saying it’s necessary for Devens’ continued flourishing future. Others are firmly opposed to new housing.

Kinch says the residential development plan is “out of date” and should be updated.

The debate over the residential nature of Devens may be one of its biggest future challenges.

Vicksburg Square is an elegant cluster of long, spacious brick buildings that are eye-catchingly historic. The cluster of former base dorms is so appealing that MassDevelopment and the JBOS found a developer willing to rehab it into condos.

But in order to change the housing cap, Ayer, Shirley and Harvard residents would have to approve the condo proposal at a super town meeting. That, says Kinch, is “an impossibility.” The Vicksburg Square condo proposal was voted down.

Kinch understands why residents are leery of allowing more housing. “In my personal opinion, it is very, very, very complex,” he says. “If you look at any town, the highest expense is a home.”

Residents need services and schools. There is not the ease of just collecting revenues from businesses. Residents need something in return and that makes the local towns nervous.

For current residents, Devens is home. But, they also live in a state of limbo.

“There is no clear picture of what’s going to happen to Devens when MassDevelopment leaves,” says Kinch.

This is part of what makes Shirley, Ayer and Harvard nervous. If they approve more housing, then there’s the possibility that when MassDevelopment leaves Devens – scheduled to happen in 2031 under the enabling legislation – Devens could be “given back” to the towns and they could find themselves responsible for hundreds more residents.

Another option would be for Devens to become a new municipality. It would be the first new town in the Commonwealth since 1921, according to the Boston Globe.

But a proposal to do just that was defeated at a super town meeting in 2005, Kinch says.

“We worked at it for at least a year-and-a-half,” he says. “Shirley and Devens supported, but Ayer and Harvard defeated.”

There are many competing interests at play here, Kinch says. Harvard currently benefits from tuition paid to educate Devens students. If Devens was parceled up and returned to the towns, Harvard would lose out on this income. The same would happen if Devens became its own town, unless it decided to continue to contract with Harvard for schooling.

Meanwhile, Devens residents vote in the surrounding towns, but have no unified vote of their own.

The Joint Board of Selectmen has no real authority, Kinch says – they exist to “advise MassDevelopment on matters related to re-use.”

In some ways, this is a political quagmire, says Kinch. “This is probably the one thing that bothers people who live here.”

The debate over expanded housing could seem like a welcome one to communities such as Anniston, struggling to get development going.

But it highlights the looming question of just what is to become of Devens in the future. Some Devens residents say sorting this out is crucial in order for it to be a true multi-use community, but other local residents say jobs should remain the real focus, especially since Devens’ industrial sector still represents just a fraction of the jobs that once were here.

Recent press coverage shows that the debate over the future of Devens is a sensitive one, drawing passionate opinions on both sides. Sensitivity over these issues could be why no local town officials returned phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Mary Jo Shafer is a former Anniston Star assistant metro editor who now works as a journalist and educator in her native Massachusetts. Email:

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Insight: Home sweet Devens by Mary Jo Shafer
Special to The Star

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