Devens inches closer to becoming the states newest municipality

DEVENS–Leslie Doolittle and Eric Edwards loved their townhouse the day they moved there in May 2002, but within a year they were ready for something bigger. They looked no further than just down the street, choosing one of the red brick Colonials that had housed officers and their families on the former Fort Devens military base. The price was right compared with similar homes in the area, and they love their new community. But Devens is a community with an uncertain future. It’s an unincorporated territory, the last of its type in Massachusetts.

Residents, state administrators, and officials in surrounding towns are considering whether Devens should become the first new town in Massachusetts since East Brookfield was incorporated in 1920. There are plenty of complicating issues, from restrictions on housing to the delivery of municipal services. Doolittle and Edwards are specifically concerned about educating their son, Augustus, and the baby on the way, due this spring.

Devens Quick Facts

Not incorporated as a town
Population: about 200
Town Meeting: none

Facts:

  • Devens covers 4,400 acres on land that formerly belonged to Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley. It is about 35 miles west of Boston and 10 miles east of Fitchburg.
  • The US military bought the land from farmers in 1917. MassDevelopment, the state agency currently responsible for Devens, bought the land from the military in 1996.
  • During the workday about 3,500 people work in 75 businesses located at Devens.

“This town could become part of New Hampshire, as long as we have good schools,” Edwards says. “I just want a good school. That’s all I care about.”

The state is now running studies to determine whether an independent Devens would be viable financially. At the same time, it’s calculating how much more it would cost an abutting municipality to take over–and provide services to–part or all of the area. A specific recommendation is due by the middle of next year.

Turning from Route 2 onto Jackson Road, one encounters a sign reading WELCOME TO DEVENS, A PLANNED COMMUNITY. The planning has gone faster than anyone expected when the state took over the military base in 1994. Almost 30 years ahead of the deadline set by the Legislature to formalize the area’s future, Devens has already outgrown phase one. There are three options: return the property to Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley along the original town lines; redivide the territory among some or all of the towns; or allow Devens to become a new incorporated community.

MassDevelopment, a quasi-public state agency charged with overseeing the redevelopment of Devens, expects to study the issue over the next year, with input from the Joint Boards of Selectmen (comprising the boards from Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley), plus a committee of Devens residents elected to an advisory board late in 2003. A recommendation will lead to a nonbinding referendum in November 2005, with residents of Ayer, Harvard, Shirley, and Devens all voting on the matter. MassDevelopment will study the results of the vote before moving forward.

The agency took over the area in 1996, after the Army closed the 4,400-acre base as part of a nationwide base relocation and closure process. William Burke, a vice president for MassDevelopment, says that the military is now almost completely gone from Devens, with just a small fenced-in complex near the center of the area used for training reservists. The base’s small airport hasn’t been used since the military left, but the state agency has turned an old golf course into one of the best in the region.

Most of the first civilians drawn to Devens live on Elm or Walnut roads, each about a half-mile long. The 80 townhouses, ranches, and Colonials face streets lined with mature trees and lights that look like gas lamps. On the other side of Rogers Field are 23 bungalows that line quarter-mile-long Auman Street. Rogers Field, covering 44 acres, serves as a de facto town common, home to hundreds of athletic events a year and an extension of the front lawn for many homeowners. A 25-acre downtown area will, when completed, include a lunch spot, gas station, hotel, conference center, and other services for those who work and live at Devens, according to MassDevelopment plans. Away from the center, industrial and high-technology businesses have moved in since the military moved out.

When the Legislature approved the reconstruction of Devens, it gave MassDevelopment and the town until 2033 to remake the base and decide its eventual fate. But things moved at a more rapid pace. The first tenant, Gillette, was signed before MassDevelopment officially purchased the property from the US Army for $17 million. Gillette was anxious to find a location, and MassDevelopment was eager to land a big-name company to spur on other interested companies.

“The concept was, if you get Gillette in here, you get your anchor,” Burke says.

Having sunk that anchor, Devens quickly grew its industrial base. There are now more than 70 businesses in the area, drawing more than 3,000 employees a day. Burke estimates that the business development portion of the plan is running eight to 10 years ahead of schedule.

The residential side is progressing less quickly. MassDevelopment officials admit that bringing residents to Devens took a back seat to business development, which was riding the roaring economy of the late 1990s. However, housing advocates put pressure on the agency to renovate the hundreds of homes on the former base and get them into a market that was struggling to meet demand. A local television station stepped into the issue, showing off the homes and asking why MassDevelopment was not making them available.

The pressure worked, and by 2002 new families were moving in. Before long, there were nearly 100 families at Devens, settling what had become the Bay State’s final frontier.

There are 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. When the first residents of Devens moved into their homes two years ago, many quickly wanted their new community to become the 352nd. Partly, the desire to form a new municipality arose out of enthusiasm for creating a new community. But it also reflected the confusing situation Devens residents found themselves in.

Devens residents have an Ayer zip code (which will change to the Devens-only zip 01434 in July). Their children go to Shirley schools. They vote in the town that originally owned the property (mostly in Harvard). Devens relies on State Police for law enforcement, but has its own fire department.

The relationship between MassDevelopment and the towns surrounding Devens has been up-and-down all along, with the influx of residents adding fuel to the fire. Many of the new residents were insulted that Harvard–with one of the best school systems in the state–did not open its doors to Devens children. (Instead, the Shirley school system agreed to educate Devens children under contract, with MassDevelopment providing compensation.)

“People first lived here and wanted their children to go to Harvard, but they got turned off” by Harvard’s attitude, says Michael Boucher, a member of the residents’ advisory committee elected by Devens citizens in December to have a say in the disposition process. “I don’t want to be somebody’s poor brother.”

The bad feelings over the school question spilled over into other matters, making independence increasingly attractive to many residents. And that made things sticky for everyone involved in what was supposed to be a leisurely process of deciding the community’s future.

“There is a cloud over our heads. It’s hindering what direction we’re going in,” says Kyle Keady, executive secretary for the town of Shirley. “We have to set a course.”

The question that must be resolved before setting that course is this: Can Devens support itself?

MassDevelopment officials say they will pay close attention to the residents–most of whom would like Devens to become independent –but they are basing their decision mostly on the numbers. “We won’t do it [independence] if it means charging $100 per $1,000” of valuation in property taxes, says Burke.

But at this point, no one is sure how much a homeowner or business would have to pay in order to support a new town’s services. That uncertainty has some Devens pioneers reconsidering their earlier enthusiasm for independence.

“I think there are a lot of people acting emotionally,” Devens resident Doolittle says. “It’s dangerous to make an emotional decision.”

Richard Leonhardt, another Devens resident, says it’s not all a matter of money. He also wonders whether the new town could run itself in typical town meeting fashion, with various boards and committees made up of volunteers.

“There’s a certain number of boards and a certain number of people on those boards,” Leonhardt says. “I don’t think Devens has the population to sustain a government. We might have enough to start out, but it’s not a lifetime job.”

But if Devens rejoins its ancestral towns, the question becomes: Which one? Boucher’s house, like most, sits on land that used to be in Harvard. He wouldn’t mind becoming a Harvard resident, he says, but he would fight being transferred to Ayer or Shirley –towns that many Devens residents consider less desirable, especially in terms of education. Doolittle and Edwards offer statistics showing that Ayer High School graduates often go on to two-year or technical colleges, while Harvard students more often go on to four-year schools. They say Harvard students consistently do better in MCAS scores than students in either Ayer or Shirley. Boucher says he would fight “tooth and bone” any attempt to move Devens into Shirley or Ayer.

As MassDevelopment crunches its numbers, the surrounding communities are doing the same. Each must consider the cost of extending its services into territory it hasn’t been responsible for since the military bought the land in 1917. For different towns, it may mean beefing up police patrols, adding a fire facility, and taking on miles of roadway for repairs and snow plowing.

If the pre-Devens boundaries were restored, Harvard would include most of the housing and a number of the business properties on the former base, but town manager Paul Cohen is already sure that Harvard would have a tough time extending its services.

“If you look at what it’s costing us to provide services and then [add] Devens, it would not be financially sustainable,” he says. The major concern, Cohen says, is that if Harvard were to take back its portion of Devens, it would be responsible for maintaining too much open space around industrial parks and other businesses.

The three towns will have their say in the November 2005 referendum, with the Harvard ballots looming particularly large. “The majority of the land is in Harvard,” says Burke. “If they say ‘no,’ it has an impact.” But he also says that the Devens votes shouldn’t be discounted, even though residents now account for fewer than 200 voters, compared with some 8,500 registered in the three towns. “My gut says that by November 2005, the residents [of Devens] are also going to have a significant impact,” says Burke.

Even if all parties agree, forming a new municipality won’t be easy, as the Legislature would have to approve a bill creating the town. And even with legislative approval, there would have to be a transition period of several years–up to 10, perhaps–as MassDevelopment creates a framework for government and slowly pulls out.

That interim period could produce some of the touchiest moments between MassDevelopment and the surrounding towns. Currently, the Devens Reuse Plan allows the towns a good deal of input on decisions affecting the area, influence they might lose in the process of establishing an independent Devens.

One example is housing. The Reuse Plan sets a target of 282 units of housing in Devens. About 100 already exist, and a developer is close to signing on to create the rest in an area along Grant Road, which used to be home to military housing. MassDevelopment is already talking about going beyond the target, since most observers believe Devens can’t support itself without a larger residential section.

“To be its own community, it needs more than 282,” admits Keady, Shirley’s executive director. “If it’s going to be its own community, then we clearly understand there needs to be more housing.” But in terms of traffic and other environmental issues, more housing in Devens would also affect its neighbors.

Anita Scheipers, town administrator for Ayer, says it’s unlikely that the Reuse Plan–which can only be changed by a “super town meeting” involving Devens and all three neighbors–would continue to make sense if Devens started down the path to independence. Still, she assumes that Ayer would continue to have some kind of a voice on planning in Devens, and she hopes that major issues such as housing are largely settled before next November’s referendum.

Meet the Author
“Nothing gets left behind,” says Scheipers. “Any and all concerns have to get settled now.”

Jason Lefferts is a reporter at the Lowell Sun.