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Woburn

Woburn group campaigning for CPA tax surcharge

Just over a month after residents began paying 3 cents more on taxes at the gasoline pump, and 12 years after Woburn voters said no to a property tax surcharge to fund preservation projects, a new residents’ group is reviving the effort to adopt the Community Preservation Act.

The group, which includes members of Woburn land and historic conservation groups, is working to build community support for the state law that allows cities and towns to levy up to a 3 percent surcharge for open space, historic preservation, affordable housing, and recreation projects.

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But the drive to get the ballot question on the Nov. 5 election ballot ended after group members met with the City Council recently and decided more time was needed to educate the public on the benefits of the CPA, according to group member Edward R. Quinn. The goal for the ballot vote is now the November 2014 state election.

“We are definitely moving ahead with the outreach and education in the community,” Quinn said.

The group has discussed setting the surcharge level at 1.5 percent, Quinn said. That would generate $1.05 million in local revenue and cost the average homeowner $38 per year, the group calculated, assuming it included an exemption covering the first $100,000 value of each home, a common practice statewide.

The desire to keep what’s left of the city’s natural areas from being developed is a key impetus for the effort, Quinn said.

“We are hoping we can pull enough people together to look at the city and realize we have got to do something now, or everything will be done and over before we even begin to talk about it,” he said.

‘I think it would be a good asset for the city.

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To place the CPA on the ballot would require either a positive vote by the City Council or a successful petition drive. Quinn said his group hopes for a council vote. But as part of its voter outreach, the group will collect signatures in the event they are needed to require a ballot vote, and to show support for the proposal.

Under the CPA, which has been accepted by 155 communities, local revenues are matched in part by a state trust fund generated from fees at registries of deeds. That amount was 26.8 percent with the annual distribution last fall, but is expected to rise this year because $25 million was added to the fund by the state.

In November 2001, Woburn voters rejected the surcharge, 66 percent to 34 percent.

Last year, lawmakers revised the law in part to make it more attractive, including allowing communities more flexibility in using CPA funds for recreation projects, and allowing them to place other revenues in their CPA funds that would be eligible for the state supplement.

In addition to helping the city avoid the loss of undeveloped land, Quinn said the group sees the CPA as a way for the city to tap state funds it is unable to access now.

“Every city and town is trying to maximize the revenues they get from outside sources,” he said.

City Council president Paul Denaro said he supported the CPA 12 years ago and would back it again. “Communities have done a poor job . . . of financial planning for preservation, and without having a [funding stream] in place, you always have the opportunity to buy something with no revenue available to do it.

“I don’t believe it would have the support of the community, because it was handily defeated 12 years ago and no one has done an education process to change people’s impression of it,” Denaro added. If that effort does take place, he said, “I think at least it would have a fighting chance.”

Quinn conceded that selling a tax hike is never easy, but he said in the 12 years since the CPA was last on the ballot, “We’ve seen neighbors coming together over issues of open space.”

As an example, he said residents joined forces to fight a controversial housing proposal for the 74-acre Whispering Hills property west of Cambridge Road. The city successfully blocked the project in a lengthy legal fight and purchased it from Northeastern University in 2010. Recently, it constructed a multipurpose athletic field on part of the site.

Quinn also cited efforts by another group to have the city purchase the Spence Farm on Wyman Street to keep it from development. The city bought a portion of the 33-acre farm to maintain for agricultural use in 2010, but two remaining parcels are facing development.

Ward 2 Alderman Richard F. Gately Jr. said he supports the CPA in Woburn because “I’ve seen the Community Preservation Act in other communities work very well.” With the right committee in place to administer it, “I think it would be a good asset for the city.”

Gately said the city is in strong enough financial shape to absorb a small surcharge, noting, “We’ve been in the black for a lot of years due to the efforts of several administrations and the City Council.”

Ward 1 Alderwoman Rosa DiTucci said she favors putting the CPA on the ballot and allowing voters to decide on it.

“I am really a strong believer that in representative government, the people should take part in the decisions,” DiTucci said.

John Laidler may be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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