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Preservation tax losing steam

After a decade, community enthusiasm for once-popular program on the wane

Town of Manchester-by-the-Sea

Crowell Chapel in Rosedale Cemetery in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Hundred-acre sweeps of farmland. Iconic lighthouses keeping watch over the unsettled Atlantic. Buildings that embody a town’s heritage or date back to the founding of the country. Accessible housing. Well-used public spaces.

For a decade, the state’s Community Preservation Act has enabled cities and towns across the state to preserve natural treasures and open spaces, shore up historic resources, and provide funds for affordable housing.

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Still, in recent years, the once voracious interest in the program has waned, particularly north of Boston, and its future vitality is uncertain, although efforts are underway to reinvigorate it.

There has been a “dramatic decline of communities adopting CPA,’’ said Stuart Saginor, executive director of the state Community Preservation Coalition, which oversees the 10-year-old program.

The biggest reason for this: a precipitous decline in matching money, he said.

The program, which allows cities and towns to opt in through a local vote, raises funds for historic, open-space, recreation, and affordable-housing projects through a local property tax surcharge (ranging from .05 percent to a maximum of 3 percent) and a yearly trust fund distribution from the state raised through a $20 fee placed on all real estate transactions in the Registry of Deeds. Cities and towns that adopt the program then set up a community preservation committee to administer those funds.

Often, to minimize the hit to taxpayers, cities or towns exempt low-income individuals, and/or the first $100,000 valuation of a given property. In a city like Gloucester (which has a 1 percent surcharge) the average additional cost for homeowners is $30 a year, according to community preservation committee cochair J.J. Bell.

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In the first six years the CPA was in place - with the first round in October 2002 - participating communities received a 100 percent match. But over the years, as more communities adopted it and the housing market tumbled, that allocation dwindled, Saginor explained.

So in the most recent distribution cycle, last October, The match rate was 26.6 percent.

Simply put, Saginor said, “The decline of communities adopting CPA has mirrored the decline in the trust fund.’’

Still, matching funds or not, some communities are simply loath to further increase their taxes.

Over the years, roughly 15 local cities and towns, including Beverly, Malden, Marblehead, Salem, and Woburn, have voted down the CPA in local elections. And some that have adopted it are attempting to go in that direction: This May in West Newbury, voters will be asked to reduce the town’s surcharge from 3 percent to .05 percent, stemming from a controversy over whether CPA money could be used to help renovate the Dr. John C. Page School. (The town initially adopted CPA in 2006.) Norfolk will also be asking voters to reduce its surcharge on its May ballot.

Lynnfield, for its part, rejected an effort in April 2009 to adopt the CPA at the full 3 percent. Nan Hockenbury, chairwoman of the town’s historical commission, thinks the rejection was due to a lack of understanding about the program, as well as an impending override that year.

“Even though it was a small amount for the CPA, it just seemed like another tax,’’ she said. “People just didn’t understand that you’re paying a small amount of money for a much greater gain.’’

JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF

Auditorium in the Chelmsford Center for the Arts, which is being renovated using Community Preservation Act funds, as are two other historic buildings in town.

Gloucester, for its part, took a few tries: Measures to adopt it failed in 2001 and 2007, until voters approved it at a 1 percent surcharge in November 2008.

Since then, the city has raised more than $1.1 million, which has been used toward more than 20 projects, according to members of its community preservation committee.

Those include a $2.6 million bonded preservation of its 1871 city hall (expected to begin this spring); affordable-housing projects on Taylor Street; and money that helped conserve a 6.5-acre parcel adjacent to the Tompson Street Reservation.

But Sandy Dahl Ronan, cochairwoman of the city’s community preservation committee, said she understood the initial hesitation on the part of voters.

“It’s a real educational process, and it takes a long time for people to digest the concepts,’’ she said. Yet “in a time of such economic difficulties, we presented it as hope. We could still be doing something positive.’’

But at least when it comes to matching funds, an attempt to revive the program is now working its way through the Legislature; House Bill 765, An Act to Sustain Community Preservation, would regularly adjust the fee at the Registry of Deeds to provide a higher match, Saginor explained, and would also loosen some uses of CPA money.

The hope is that it will pass by the time the Legislature recesses in July.

Otherwise, he predicted, match rates - and, ultimately, enthusiasm - will continue to decrease.

To date, 148, or 42 percent of cities and towns, have signed on. Just one, Pelham, adopted it in 2011, and a half-dozen are looking at it this year (including upcoming votes in Canton and Freetown in the spring).

Still, more recently, interest from new communities has been mostly confined to the western and southeastern parts of the state, according to Saginor. The last north-of-Boston community in Massachusetts to adopt the CPA was Gloucester, in 2008.

That is a sharp contrast to a decade ago; the north region was essentially the pioneer when the CPA was first signed into state law in September 2000.

North Andover was the first to enact the measure at the full 3 percent surcharge (followed immediately by Bedford), and in the ensuing decade became one of its greatest success stories, to date raising nearly $19.5 million and funding dozens of projects.

In the years since, roughly 20 cities and towns north and northwest of Boston have opted in.

“It has vastly enhanced the ability to protect open space, preserve historic resources, and construct affordable housing,’’ said Bob Morse, cochairman of the committee that administers funds in Chelmsford, which enacted the CPA in 2001. “All three have benefited tremendously.’’

JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF

The Chelmsford Center for the Arts.

Some projects in the works across the region include the restoration of Old Town Hall in Tyngsborough; construction of new playing fields at Town Farm in North Andover; and affordable-housing planning in Tewksbury, among many others.

Chelmsford, meanwhile, is simultaneously rehabilitating three of its most historic buildings. For starters, there’s a $2.5 million project in the works to renovate and upgrade the town’s 1879 Old Town Hall, now the Chelmsford Center for the Arts, according to Morse. And right across the street, work is underway to restore the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church’s steeple and clock. Meanwhile, across town, the heavily deteriorated 1853 North Town Hall is undergoing a $2.85 million rehab; once completed, it will house an after-school youth center, Morse said.

The town is one of just four to raise its surcharge over the years, along with Manchester, according to the state’s database. Both increased their contributions from .05 percent to 1.5 percent - Chelmsford in 2007 and Manchester in 2010.

Ultimately, Morse said, “there are an awful lot of things that we just couldn’t do without CPA.’’

Dahl Ronan agreed, noting that the program gives cities and towns something positive to work with in an economically insecure time.

“There’s so much in the news that ‘we have to cut this, and we have to cut that,’ ’’ she said. “These are concrete projects that are able to be done. It touches many parts of the community.’’

Eventually, she said, the hope is to try to increase the surcharge, although there are no current plans to do so.

Lynnfield, for its part, may try once again, as well.

“There’s just a ton of stuff you can do with [CPA],’’ said Hockenbury. “It can help in small ways as well as with larger projects. It enriches your town.’’

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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