- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2009

Three towns in Massachusetts are deadlocked over what to do with Vicksburg Square, a series of decaying buildings at the site of the former Fort Devens. Fort Devens, 35 miles west of Boston, was closed 13 years ago, and Massachusetts embarked on an ambitious redevelopment plan. Recently, local residents voted down a proposal to rezone the largest remaining block of undeveloped structures at Vicksburg Square, comprising about 20 acres and 430,000 square feet of available floor space in the previous base area. The unoccupied site continues to atrophy because of time and random acts of vandalism.

Fort Devens was established in 1917 and was closed under the Base Realignment and Closure program in 1996. The state-run MassDevelopment authority, at the time known as the Massachusetts Land Bank, assumed responsibility to lead the economic redevelopment of the base.

More than 85 businesses are located on the former base, and more than 4,000 jobs have been created. These include a solar-panel fabrication facility that will create 700 jobs and a major pharmaceutical company installation that initially will create 300 jobs.

The seven buildings that make up the Vicksburg Square Architectural Protection District were constructed between 1925 and 1945 by contractors from Lowell, Mass., Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The dominant architectural theme is Georgian revival. Most of the buildings were designed as soldiers barracks. Since the closure of the base in 1996, the buildings generally have been abandoned.

Vicksburg Square stands in stark contrast to the success achieved elsewhere on Devens.

In the initial redevelopment plan adopted after the closure of the base, the parcel was zoned as an innovation-and-technology center and was envisioned as a centerpiece of the redesign.

As part of the legislation controlling the redevelopment, Massachusetts determined that any subsequent zoning changes would require unanimous approval from the three towns of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley, all of which previously had owned land upon which the base was sited. Current residents of Devens vote in either Harvard or Ayer, based on their address and its historic linkage to one of the two towns.

There are approximately 300 residents of Devens, living in 106 single-family homes and condominiums that all were upgraded and resold by a developer as part of the base redevelopment. The state Legislature has established a deadline of 2033 to decide whether Devens will become its own town or join another local community.

Under the existing zoning, MassDevelopment did not receive strong developer interest in Vicksburg. Over the past year, developers approached it with an alternate proposal for residential and mixed usage, which would require a zoning change.

After a series of discussions beginning in late 2008, the three towns agreed to a “super” town meeting in which each town would vote in early June. There was a great deal of discussion in the weeks preceding the vote, with strong opinions expressed both in support of and in opposition to the proposed zoning change.

Those in support of the zoning change stressed the decaying conditions of the historic buildings, the ability of each of the affected towns to meet its state-mandated low-cost housing requirements via planned housing at the site, and the economic benefits of redevelopment.

Those opposed emphasized that the state had allowed until 2033 for completion of the disposition. Given this long time horizon, they questioned the urgency making the zoning change now. They also questioned the financial soundness of building an estimated 350 additional residential units - both from a tax-revenue perspective and because of the current depressed nature of the local real estate market.

All three town meetings in early June were well-attended. In Harvard, the vote was 186 to 1 in favor. Shirley likewise approved the zoning change, 143 to 39. However, Ayer voted against the proposal by a count of 73 to 22. Hence, the measure was defeated.

What will happen next is not clear. There is a plan to present a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature asking for intervention in the zoning change and possibly for a change in the rule requiring town unanimity for zoning changes. MassDevelopment maintains its original charter of trying to redevelop the Vicksburg Square parcel within the current zoning of innovation and technology. In the meantime, the buildings continue to deteriorate.

Guillermo Rivera is a writer living in the area of Devens, Mass.

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