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Unlocking the housing potential of Fort Devens


But housing hasn’t been created at the same rate, even though dozens of undeveloped acres are already zoned for housing and even as some of the old military facilities crumble.

The solution lies at the state level: Legislators should abolish the cap on housing units at the site, which needlessly complicates any effort to build housing at Devens.

The cap limits to 282 the number of housing units that can be built at Devens, and the site has almost reached it. Anything more than that requires a cumbersome process involving votes in all three towns.

So despite the fact that officials for the three towns and MassDevelopment all want to green light one 400-unit housing project in Devens — Vicksburg Square, a compound of seven empty and boarded up buildings — differences between the state and the towns over relatively minor details could prevent the plan from moving forward. The towns want a large percentage of the housing units set aside for elderly and low-income residents, strictures the state believes would effectively kill the chances for redevelopment by making it economically nonviable for a developer.

The development of Vicksburg Square has been in the making, and then unmaking, for more than a decade. In fact, this editorial page supported an earlier effort to redevelop the site in 2012 that fell through because the plan did not get the votes it needed in the three towns. Ditto for a 2009 effort to rezone Vicksburg Square for residential use.

Governor Maura Healey’s proposal to completely eliminate the housing cap at Devens is a welcome move that would simplify reuse of the base and weaken the ability of the municipalities to stop or place unreasonable restrictions on development.

Healey’s measure, tucked in the governor’s economic development bill, has caused alarm among town officials, who fret about the usual parade of horribles from more housing, like more kids in local schools and burdens on infrastructure. But it’s the bold thinking that Massachusetts needs when it comes to the housing crisis.

And anyway, the language in the governor’s bill wouldn’t necessarily mean a free-for-all would occur at Devens. But the bill would unlock the vast potential Devens has for housing. Its effects would extend outside of Vicksburg Square because much of the acreage within the former base is already zoned for housing.

The bill also would establish a working group to “determine a strategy for future development within Devens ... in recognition that it is important to discuss the local permitting process, in partnership with the community, including Harvard, Ayer, and Shirley,” according to a summary of Healey’s proposal.

What the bill would do is scrap an arbitrary cap that creates needless problems for developing the site. And that’s critical. Nearly 30 years after it closed, the state cannot afford to keep squandering Fort Devens’ potential to ease the state’s housing crisis.

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