Money raised through the Community Preservation Act has bankrolled almost $1.5 billion for more than 8,500 projects in 160 communities across the state -- everything from a dog park in Randolph to a time capsule in Hingham and a 113-unit apartment complex in an old shovel factory in Easton.
But not every project passes muster. And not every town wants into the optional program – which has generated love and loathing since it took effect in 2001.
This spring, four communities south of Boston -- Abington, Hull, Norwood, and Rockland -- will vote on whether to adopt the state statute, and the Boston City Council is considering it, as well.
They’ll decide whether to add a surcharge on local property taxes -- up to 3 percent is allowed -- so their communities can get a share of the state Community Preservation fund, which comes primarily from fees paid to Registries of Deeds. The combined money can be spent locally on various combinations of open space, historic preservation, recreation, and affordable housing.
South communities already participating include Braintree, Bridgewater, Canton, Carver, Cohasset, Duxbury, Easton, Hanover, Hingham, Kingston, Marion, Marshfield, Middleborough, Norwell, Pembroke, Plympton, Plymouth, Quincy, Randolph, Scituate, Sharon, Stoughton, West Bridgewater, Wareham, and Weymouth.
Randolph Town Manager David Murphy is an enthusiastic fan of the program, which Randolph voters narrowly decided to adopt in 2005. He said one project in particular -- buying Powers Farm and making it a park with $3.87 million in Community Preservation money -- has “been a transformative improvement in town.”
“We added a picnic pavilion, walking/nature trails, a small play area, and a small kayaking area to the pond. It is an Olmstedian oasis that has become a hub of our community,” he said.
Easton’s investment of $7.5 million in Community Preservation money was equally momentous -- and helped turn the historic Ames shovel factory into a mixed-use development that includes affordable housing and art studios.
Not all projects are big. Hingham’s spending ranges from $1.1 million toward its Heritage Museum to $1,216 for a time capsule at the public library.
And not all attempts to use preservation money on transformative projects are successful.
In 2015, a group of Norwell residents successfully sued to stop their town from using $1.4 million to build a “pathwalk” along Main Street. The judge ruled that building a sidewalk was not a permissible use of the Community Preservation Act money.
Donald A. Mauch Sr., the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he wanted to make sure “that the CPA fund does not become a go-to fund any time the town cannot fund a project in the usual way, through general revenue or borrowing.”
Norwell voters will decide at the May 2 Town Meeting whether to override the debt limits of Proposition 2 ½ to pay for the sidewalk. Town Meeting also will consider Mauch’s proposals to either opt out of the Community Preservation Act program altogether, or decrease the property tax surcharge from 3 to 1 percent.
“It’s an opportunity for all taxpayers to reduce their taxes,” Mauch said.
So far, similar attempts to revoke adoption of the statute have all failed, according to Stuart Saginor, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition, which advocates for the program and keeps track of how it’s working.
Saginor said that of the more than 8,500 projects approved statewide, he knows of only two that were reversed in court: Norwell’s sidewalks and, in 2008, Newton’s plan to spend $766,000 for recreation improvements. The law was later changed to allow projects like the Newton one, he said.
Figuring out what is allowed can be tricky. For example, towns can use preservation money to build athletic fields, as long as they’re not in stadiums, Saginor said. And towns have to find another source to pay for artificial turf, he said.
Sometimes, the debate over whether to spend preservation money on a project gets into philosophical issues.
In Cohasset, the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State objected -- to no avail -- to the town’s plan in 2012 to spend $65,000 restoring the windows of the First Parish Church on Cohasset Common. Supporters pointed out that dozens of other municipalities have dipped into their Community Preservation kitty for church restoration projects; Quincy has done it for the Wollaston Congregational Church, First and Central Baptist churches, and United First Parish.
Other times, challenges are more practical.
Plymouth Town Meeting this month rejected a request for $140,000 to buy 10 acres of beachfront property to protect it from development -- with opponents arguing successfully that the purchase was unnecessary because the property could never be built on anyway.
It was the first time Plymouth Town Meeting ever rejected a Community Preservation proposal -- after 14 years and more than 130 requests -- according to William Keohan, who chairs the local Community Preservation Committee.
The same Town Meeting voted to use preservation funds to buy three other parcels -- bringing the total of land Plymouth has bought for open space close to 1,800 acres, Keohan said.
David Luberoff, senior advisor to the Boston Area Research Initiative at Harvard University, said there are some real problems with the law in that the goal of preserving open space can work against the goal of increasing affordable housing.
“A fairly high share [of preservation money] is going to buy open space, and that’s less land for development,” Luberoff said. “The remaining land becomes more expensive as a result. That may be exacerbating the [affordable-]housing market.”
On top of that, sometimes communities use preservation money to buy property being eyed for Chapter 40B developments, which include affordable-housing units.
Luberoff’s other concern about the preservation program is that it tends to benefit wealthy communities at the expense of less-affluent ones.
All communities contribute to the state Community Preservation fund through local real estate transactions at the Registries of Deeds, but only communities that adopt the Community Preservation Act get a share of the state money.
“If you look through the list, you don’t see a lot of Gateway Cities there,” Luberoff said, referring to communities where the median household income is below the state average.
Getting back the money from the state fund is one reason supporters are urging blue-collar Rockland’s May 2 Town Meeting to vote to join the Community Preservation bandwagon. Town Administrator Allan Chiocca estimates the town has contributed close to $1 million to the state fund since the program started.
Derek Ewell, a member of the Rockland Open Space Committee, says the proposed 1.5 percent surcharge to property taxes would add $45 to the average homeowner’s property tax bill.
“You see what other towns can do with Community Preservation money; the investment is well worth it,” he said.Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.