After more than two decades on the job, Peter Lowitt, who has led the staff of the commission that regulates commercial and residential development at Devens since 1999, will retire as director this summer.
Lowitt announced his plans to retire as director and land use administrator of the Devens Enterprise Commission in late December. He will be succeeded by environmental planner Neil Angus, who has been with the agency since 2006. At their Dec. 20 meeting, the DEC’s commissioners voted unanimously to appoint Angus as Lowitt’s replacement upon his retirement.
A commitment to green development
In an interview this week, Lowitt recalled that when he first arrived at Devens, the DEC’s offices were located in Vicksburg Square. “You could hear the wind rattling through the building,” he said. Following its formation in 1996, the DEC had permitted a few projects, such as a Gillette distribution center, Lowitt said, but had spent most of its time prior to his arrival writing the rules and regulations that would govern Devens’ development for the next 40 years. “My biggest task was to reconnect the commission to a sustainable development mission.”
Peter Lowitt (center), with DEC Chairman Bill Marshall (left), and Neil Angus receive a 4-Star STAR rating in 2018, verifying that Devens is living up to its sustainable redevelopment goals.(Courtesy photo)
According to Lowitt, once he was on board, the DEC “pumped and pushed green infrastructure and sustainability” into the agency’s regulations and created a green incentive program to encourage Devens businesses to follow best practices for the green and sustainable development of their properties. While the DEC’s quasi-state sister agency, MassDevelopment, was tasked with making Devens a central Massachusetts economic powerhouse, the DEC was empowered to decide how that would be done. (See "Q&A: The Devens Enterprise Commission" below.) “We’ve been taking MassDevelopment along for the ride on a lot of this,” Lowitt said. “They’ve been good partners most of the time,” though he acknowledged that balancing the DEC’s desire for sustainable development against MassDevelopment’s promise of fast-track project approval required trade-offs. “We want the cleanest, greenest landscape. We have strict regulations that drive you toward that. But in return you get permitted within 75 days.”
Lowitt said that when he considered the growth and development that’s occurred at Devens during his tenure, he was “pretty pleased with the outcome.” A 2020 report by the UMass Donahue Institute found that the 100 businesses located at Devens employed more than 6,000 workers and contributed $3.8 billion to the Massachusetts economy. “We’ve done it balancing issues of social equity, open space, and environmental protection as well as economic development.” He added: “What I really like about it is that it is sustainable development—development that balances those three issues. When you drive through Devens, it looks like you’re in a college campus or a high-end business park, and that’s the intent.”
A ‘driving force’
DEC Chair Bill Marshall had high praise for Lowitt’s work in an email exchange with the Press. “Peter has done an outstanding job as the Devens Enterprise Commission land use administrator,” he wrote. “The unified permit offered by the DEC along with the emphasis on sustainable development has been the catalyst for the success of Devens as an international model of reuse for a former military installation. Peter has been the driving force behind that effort.”
Harvard’s Victor Normand, who leads two advisory committees studying options for the future governance of Devens, agreed. “Peter has provided exceptional leadership through the uncharted territory that has been the Devens experiment. His name will be one of those individuals forever associated with the success of the project,” he wrote in an email this week.
Vive la revolution
Lowitt is a graduate of Brown University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1979. In 1986 he completed a master’s degree in environmental urban policy at Tufts University. He was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, one of approximately 450 worldwide, and chairs the Eco Industrial Development Section of the International Society of Industrial Ecology, a field in which he has been a leader throughout his career.
Lowitt is also a military history buff. In 2015 he hosted a miniature war game enthusiasts event at the Fort Devens Museum, telling a Nashoba Valley Voice interviewer that his favorite wars were those of the post-French Revolution, Napoleonic era between 1792 and 1815. When asked last week when he planned to officially leave his position, Lowitt quipped, “Bastille Day.” He and his wife will head to Europe for what he describes as a French-themed vacation.
Q&A: The Devens Enterprise Commission
What is the role of the DEC?
The DEC is the regulatory and permitting authority at Devens. Its role is to administer and enforce the plans for reuse of the former Army base, including its bylaws and regulations. The commission and its staff are independent and self-funded.
The commission also functions as the Devens board of health, conservation commission, zoning board of appeals, historic district commission, and planning board. To carry out these essential functions and services, the commission employs a small staff and consultants in various capacities.
Who are the commissioners?
The work of the DEC is overseen by 12 commissioners. Six commissioners are nominated by the towns of Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley. Six additional regional commissioners are appointed by the governor. The governor also appoints the chairperson. The commissioners are chosen for their expertise in industrial development, housing, finance, business, real estate, environment, planning, transportation, or municipal government. Bill Marshall is the current commission chair.
Who represents Harvard on the commission?
Harvard’s two commissioners are Jim DeZutter, who is the current vice chair, and Duncan Chapman.
What is the role of the DEC director?
The DEC director manages the staff and consultants employed by the DEC to carry out its work. The staff reviews permit applications and issues findings that inform the commission’s decisions. The commission is committed to completing work on an application in 75 days.
What is a unified permit?
In most municipalities, applicants are required to obtain the approval of multiple boards before being permitted to proceed with a major project. At Devens, developers apply only to the DEC for what is called a unified permit, or, sometimes, “one-stop” permitting. DEC staff and consultants review each permit and issue a finding and recommendation on which the commission then acts.
What is the relationship between MassDevelopment and the DEC?
The DEC is the permitting authority at Devens; no projects can proceed without its approval. MassDevelopment, a quasi-state agency, is responsible for promoting the commercial and residential development of all state-owned land at Devens. It might be said that MassDevelopment proposes, while the DEC disposes.
In addition, MassDevelopment provides municipal services to the businesses and residents located there, including fire, police, and public works, paid for by the property taxes it collects. In an unusual arrangement, Devens residents are considered citizens of Harvard, Ayer, or Shirley—depending on where they reside—for the purposes of local, state, and national elections. However, they have no vote in the decisions of either the DEC or MassDevelopment.
Sources: Devens Enterprise Commission, Peter Lowitt